Surrogate User Testing: Validating Someone Else’s Design

Jan 7
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Being a user experience design and research shop means that sometimes we do one without the other. Sometimes we’re just designing; sometimes we’re just researching.
Why, you may wonder, do we do this? Well, it’s usually a case of time, budget, resources, or any combination of those. Sometimes a client has already done the research or doesn’t have the budget for the research, so we take what they’ve got and roll out a design, with the caveat that the design is not a genuine user-centered masterpiece without the input of the end users. And sometimes a client has already created a design and a prototype, and they want us to come in and validate that design direction with real users.
Regardless of the circumstances, it can be a tricky endeavor to design or research based on someone else’s work. There are inevitably going to be some hurdles – such as clashing processes, gaps in knowledge, and time crunches – that simply don’t exist when we start a project at Square One and see it through to launch.
Read on for a few tips on how to navigate user testing of someone else’s design.

6 Tips & Tricks for User Testing a Product You Didn’t Build

6. Build Rapport!
Coming in at the end of a project to test a product means you have to build rapport with the key players much more quickly than if you had been working on a three- or six-month project and meeting with stakeholders once a week. We’ve found the quickest and easiest ways to build rapport fast are to:
– Be respectful – of your clients, of their time, and of the promises you make to them. Typically they’ll reciprocate in kind. An easy way to build respect and trust is to simply do what you said you’d do – i.e., call when you said you’d call, get that report finished when you said you would, etc.
– Laugh – usually the best medicine. Some clients tend to be on the more serious side, but a harmless joke or anecdote about how tight your belt is after Thanksgiving or how your cat ate all the pumpkin pie before you got to it can go a long way.
– Listen – key to the kingdom. Ask open-ended questions, encourage a dialogue, and don’t talk just to hear yourself talk or to make yourself sound professional; clients will appreciate your get-to-the-point attitude.

5. Give Feedback!
Oftentimes the folks asking you to test their design and/or their prototype did not design with a UX expert looking over their shoulder and making the case for the end user or identifying quick usability fixes that will improve the experience. You might find yourself looking through a deck of wireframes in one of those initial kick-off meetings and thinking, “That search box is WAY too big” or “That button is WAY too far below the fold.”
If you notice low-hanging fruit like these that can be fixed pretty quickly, speak up. Better yet, if there’s time, build a round of feedback into the project before taking the product to usability testing. You’re UX experts, after all, not just run-of-the-mill moderators.

4. Set Deadlines!
Deadlines are a major player in a successful surrogate test. Often the turnaround time for testing is going to be super quick (“We’d like to test this prototype before it goes to development in two weeks”) and often the client is tweaking their design until five minutes before the first test session starts. This can cause tension in the UX team – particularly the moderator – which can be projected onto the test participant if you’re not careful.
So, make sure you set expectations with your client from the get-go. Tell them that the design needs to be locked down and in your hands at least 48 hours before the first test session begins. This isn’t you being a stickler or a Debbie Downer – it’s you making sure you and your team will be as prepared as you can possibly be before heading in to test a prototype you’re not too familiar with.

3. Be Prepared!
Because you haven’t spent the past three months working closely with a designer to make sure the end users’ needs are being met and voices are being heard, you’re not going to be as familiar with a product in a surrogate test as you would be with your coworker’s design. This can impact the test protocol, the follow-up questions, and even your rapport with the participants.
To make sure that you narrow those gaps in your knowledge as much as possible:
– Review – go through the prototype on your own a few times and note any inactive interactions or hurdles you may expect the user to encounter.
– Expectations – think about what themes you expect to emerge as you go through each test session – but don’t let these expectations impact what actually happens! Keep an open mind, always.
– Dry Runs – have a member of your team who is not affiliated with the project do a run-through of the entire test protocol with you so you can identify any issues or awkwardnesses. Even better, do two or three dry runs. It’ll make that first session on testing day run as smoothly as the fourth or fifth.

2. Be Firm!
You’re a UX researcher, which means you know a little something about how to conduct a usability test. Don’t take this for granted; it’s not always clear to clients what your reasoning is for asking questions in that particular way or for setting a context with that particular tone. They may even try to dissuade you from your tried-and-true practices.
Explain why you do things the way you do, and encourage more questions if clients aren’t sold on it. (And, of course, listen to their concerns!)

1. Be Flexible!
This may sound contradictory to the “Be Firm!” tip, but it’s not. Rather, it’s a balancing act. There are times when you need to stick to your guns and assert your authority as a UX expert, and there are times when you need to sit back and say, “Yeah let’s try that.”
If a client throws you a curve ball and asks you to throw the test protocol out the window or to ask a series of leading questions, evaluate the pros and cons. As long as your client understands that this is not the tried-and-true methodology, and that they may not get the feedback they’re looking for, go for it. It can’t hurt to try new things once in a while. And you may even learn a little something in the process.

That covers it for our surrogate testing tips! Hope we shed some light on how to carry someone else’s baby.

Comments, thoughts, or other tips? Tweet me @valletown #SurrogateTesting

Posted by: David Richard

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