Gorilla User Testing: Using Primates To Advance Human-Centered Design

Jamal Nichols
Apr 1, 2019 · 5 min read

In the world of UX Design, Guerrilla User Testing is a well-known and popular technique for gathering user research on a shoestring budget.

A lesser known but no less effective technique is the practice of Gorilla User Testing.

The two are often confused because of the similarities in the naming, however, Gorilla User Testing is a much older technique. Donald Norman was a big proponent of Gorilla User Testing during his time at Apple, and it was later perfected by Steve Jobs.

Gorilla User Testing is an effective way of testing your UX designs. Below we will go into what Gorilla User Testing is, its history, and how to practice it in a modern agile UX environment.

What is Gorilla User Testing

Gorilla User Testing is the practice of using primates to discover latent user needs in humans. This is extremely useful in exposing user needs that humans in modern society have lost awareness of. Primates and humans share up to 99.8% of the same DNA, so it makes perfect sense to use primates for this purpose.

It doesn’t have to be gorillas, it can be any higher primate. However, gorillas have shown an exceptional ability to articulate their user needs, as evidenced by the photo below:

History Of Gorilla User Testing

Donald Norman pioneered gorilla user testing in the 1990s.

I’ll let Donald tell the story himself:

Steve Jobs then adopted and popularized gorilla user testing after his return to Apple.

Now that we understand a bit more about the origins of Gorilla User Testing, let’s discuss some of its advantages:

Advantages of Gorilla User Testing

Authentic Responses

Humans have developed masks to hide their true emotions. You may not get honest feedback on your app because they are too socially conscious to give it to you.

Primates always give honest and direct feedback during user testing sessions. Observe how this primate responds to a magic trick:

Reliable Access To Test Subjects

Humans are flaky and may cancel last minute or not show up for the user interview. However, you always have access to primates for Gorilla User Testing: just visit your local zoo.

More Efficient Designs

Apes have about the same level of intelligence as a person who is multitasking. Most people multi-task. Therefore, by designing with apes, you are simulating a more realistic environment than if you invited human users over into a research lab to have them test your product in an undistracted setting. If it keeps the ape’s attention, you’ve got a winning formula.

Embracing diversity and inclusion

Humans are apes, too. Apes are people. It’s not fair to exclude our chimpanzee, gorilla, bonobo, and orangutan brothers and sisters from their right to delightful, beautiful, and usable experiences.

If it keeps the ape’s attention, you’ve got a winning formula.

How to Conduct a Gorilla User Test

Conducting a gorilla user test is a straightforward process: Establish dominance, build rapport, make the ask, observe, reward.

Step 1: Establish Dominance

It’s important to establish to the ape that you are in control. You do this by showing dominant body language as you enter the cage, and by making direct and strong eye contact with the ape. Observe this behavior in action below:

Continue this process for 5–10 minutes.

Step 2: Build Rapport

After you’ve dominated the ape and won the battle of wills, it’s time to build rapport. You do this by playing a quick board game with the ape. Cards against humanity is the preferred game of choice among great apes.

Apes also like memes. A great game for the purpose of introducing memes is called “What Do You Meme”.

You can also play other board games with the apes. Observe a UXA (UX for apes) researcher in action establishing rapport:

Play the game for about 10–15 minutes. Make sure to win so you keep your dominant stature.

Step 3: Make The Ask

It’s now time to do the actual test. Pull out your smartphone and give it to the ape. Communicate the task you want the ape to accomplish using straightforward language. Here are some example UXA research questions you can ask:

  • Did you notice whether there was any other way to complete a specific step/task?
  • Can you tell me what you think about these icons? What do you expect to happen if you interact with this icon? Why?
  • On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is not at all easy and 5 is very easy, how easy was it to complete the task using the product?

Step 4: Observe

It‘s important to not just rely on the ape‘s verbal responses regarding your product. Observe their reactions closely as they interact with your product. You can tell much more from an ape‘s behavior than you can from what the ape says.

This ape reported in the questionnaire that the task we gave him was a 5 (very easy to complete):

Step 5: Reward

After the ape has completed the usability test, it’s important to give them a reward. This ensures they stay motivated and are willing to do further tests with you.

Be careful with your biases when choosing rewards for the apes. It’s common to think that apes like Bananas, but that is actually a very apeist assumption. We found that most of our test subjects preferred foie gras.

Key Takeaways

Gorilla user testing is an underrated technique that should be in the toolbox of every competent UX Designer. It‘s saved my projects so many times when human test subjects flaked on me, or there were debates with leadership with regards to which human user test result we should listen to.

Share Your Story

Have you used gorilla user testing in your designs? Do you plan to? Share it with us in the comments.

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