We need to stop talking about usability testing…

…and start talking about the appropriate methods for your research.

Christina Li
Aug 30, 2019 · 5 min read

I often get asked: “We’re going to do a usability testing to look at X! What do you think?”

My answer usually is: “What are your research questions? What are you trying to learn?”

Why do I ask that? By understanding the objectives of doing a piece of research will decide the method. Sometimes, the answer is not a usability study.

Focus on research questions first

We can’t assume that usability testing is always the solution. Or, it’s the only form of research. We limit our customer learnings if we only perform usability testing.

Instead, we need to get comfortable in asking and answering three key questions:

  1. What are your research questions? So, what do you want to learn by doing this piece of research?

Good research questions will get you to the right method

Here are some well-defined research questions. You will see that usability testing isn’t always the appropriate method.

Example 1: We want to understand if people can use our prototype or product.

Here we’re identifying usability issues that may stop people from using the product. Then, usability testing may be the appropriate method.

Example 2: We want to understand how people currently do a particular thing (e.g. shop for grocery).

Usability testing wouldn’t be suitable in this instance. It won’t tell you how people plan the shop, travel to the shops or any distractions they experience. Instead, contextual inquiry- observing people in their natural environments- would be more appropriate.

I wrote about contextual inquiry before, which you can check out.

Example 3: We want to explore if our idea and concept will work in the market.

We’re trying to understand if there is a market-fit for an early idea. Again, usability testing wouldn’t be suitable. Instead, we can consider exploratory research methods. Such as using a storyboard to illustrate the idea and get feedback. Or, conduct co-creation sessions with customers to understand their needs and mental models.

Be creative with your research methods

There isn’t a set method to get customer insights for your research questions. Be creative with your approach! Don’t be afraid to try other research methods to get better answers to your research questions.

I’m sharing some research methods to get you started.


Storyboarding is a tool to show users how your idea may work through a story sequence.

The story doesn’t have to be long or detailed. It only needs a start, a middle and an end. The key is to communicate enough information for users to grasp the idea. And use the storyboard as a conversation starter.

Some discussion questions to go along with storyboarding include:

  • How relevant is this story to you?
Co-creation with participants in research is fun!

Co-creation (Participatory design)

This technique invites participants to take an active role in the design process.

You can use this technique in two different ways. In the exploratory stage to discover needs and mental models. And in the ideation stage to co-create solutions together. You can do this in a workshop format with a group of people, or one-on-one.

Co-creation might seem tricky to master (or even sound scary) but it’s actually a lot of fun! You get to be hands on and be creative in research planning.

Here are some activities you can do together.

Role playing

Role playing is a stimulation technique to get insights into the topic. I like this method because it lets users show you what they usually say and do in a similar situation. You get insights into the range of emotions they go through and any challenges they face.

Give participants the role of a customer and a situation they are familiar with. You can either be the service agent or a bystander interacting with the participants. To get started, you can give the participants a character background or a script. But I wouldn’t be too prescriptive as you want to see the participants behave as they usually would.

Design through play dough

This a fun and informative way for users to express their ideas in a short time. It’s to allow participants to make models with play dough (or pom-pom). This is a quick and cheap way for participants to show you what they have in mind, make changes and throw away ideas. Let them use the models to tell you their stories. For example, get participants to show you how they would like to receive care in old age.

Sketching together

You can sketch some ideas together with participants. It can be challenging when there’s a blank piece of paper in front of you. So think about templates that you can use. It’s useful to have some ideas sketched out as a backup. These sketches can form the start of your conversation. Let participants draw on them so they can express their ideas.

Journey or timeline mapping

Ask participants to draw or write out the steps they would go through for a particular situation. It allows participants to express any pain points and challenges they experience. And it’s a great way for you to see where the opportunities and gaps are before designing solutions.

Handy tips

There are many other research methods you can use. The key takeaway is to define research questions so you can work out the appropriate method.

When you’re running some of these research activities, think about:

  • How you can let the participants contribute during the research session

There is a time and place for usability testing. But there are many different ways to get customer insights and it’s a lot of fun!

I encourage you to go and give these techniques a go!

Melon Experience Design help clients gain insights into their customers behaviours. With insights, we can make a positive impact together. Get in touch if you’d like to work with us.

Melon Experience Design

Melon Experience Design in a small consultancy based in…

Melon Experience Design

Melon Experience Design in a small consultancy based in London, UK. We combine psychology & design thinking to create digital services with social impact.

Christina Li

Written by

@chrissy0118 | Director @melonxdesign | Service Design & User Research | Traveller | London, UK

Melon Experience Design

Melon Experience Design in a small consultancy based in London, UK. We combine psychology & design thinking to create digital services with social impact.