“I was recently asked to act as an ‘expert user’ in the user testing phase for a new video calling app specifically designed for people with hearing loss,” says Pippa Highfield, marketing consultant and special advisor to Ideas for Ears.
I’ve volunteered as a tester in many product trials but even so I’m not sure I am worthy of the title ‘expert’! However, that aside, I felt I’d share my experiences of user testing for those unsure what’s involved.
What’s user testing?
‘User testing’ is the process of making sure that products or services can be fully and easily used by the people they are designed for.
Most of the user testing that I have done has been with products and services designed for people who have hearing loss. I am always on the look out for things that can make my hearing loss less of a constraint on my life, the way I participate and my enjoyment.
Being involved in user testing means giving honest, clear and detailed feedback on whatever aspect of the product of service you are testing. It might be something quite simple, like the registration process to a new mobile application. Or it could be much more complex, involving scrutinising every aspect of a prototype product or a new online healthcare service. Sometimes it might even require helping to envision a totally new concept.
In my experience, the best trials are those that engage with a wide number of potential product users early in the design process. It can be difficult later on when the product is more established and key features seem more fixed. At that point, giving feedback, especially if it feels like negative feedback, can be harder.
Whilst it’s important to remain impartial, the most vital feedback you can give is often the first thought that comes into your head. It’s your intuitive response to a product, design or service that can be really valuable to the research team. You’ve probably experienced becoming too close to a project – be it a piece of writing or design work – and no longer being able to spot the ‘obvious’ flaws; it’s that fresh approach that a good user trial can overcome.
As a product or service tester, you might be asked to use the product repeatedly and in different ways. This allows any problems that arise in some situations but not in others to be spotted. User testing also often involves using similar ‘competitor’ products to make comparisons between them. This can be a really interesting way to learn what’s best and worst about similar products or services and to form a view on what you prefer.
How you give feedback
Feedback is collected in different ways depending on what the research team is looking for. Quite often they will use questionnaires to capture your immediate impressions, or they might ask you to sort through some picture or written cards and set them out in an order that makes sense to you.
They might also capture feedback from you through ‘observational testing’. This is when researchers will observe you doing a task that requires use of their product or service. They might set up video cameras to record what you do, where you look and what you say. If it is a website or digital product that is being tested, they might even do an eye-tracking study to record what your eyes are naturally and intuitively drawn to.
As I’ve discovered, it can be a little unnerving when you know you are being observed. It’s easy to feel intimidated by the process but that’s the opposite of what’s wanted because it can affect your ability to perform ‘normally’. A good researcher will put you at your ease and help you forget you are being watched. It helps, of course, when the product you are testing is interesting!
What to pay attention to
It isn’t just how the product or service performs that is important. It is also how it appears and how it makes you feel. The feelings that you have when you use a product or service are what researchers and developers want to know.
As a qualified marketer, I pay particular attention to clarity, design and language because I know the impact that it has on the way people feel. What response do the colours convey? Is the tone of voice warm or patronising? Is the language used empathetic or stigmatising?
These things are linked to branding, which is often underestimated in product or service design. It has an important influence on how people feel, often in a subliminal way. It is about visual design, language, tone of voice, and consistency – all things I always watch out for in my role as an expert user.
But you don’t need to be an ‘expert user’ or an ‘expert marketer’ to spot inconsistencies, nor to notice how you feel when you use a product or service. If something feels great or a bit off, you don’t have to be able to explain why, you just need to know it does! That can be the single most important thing to tell the research team.
Could you be a tester?
Being part of a product trial can be a rewarding process. It can give you a chance to support the development of products or services that are potentially of benefit to you or that you feel will be of benefit to others.
I’d encourage you to get involved, though I would also advise you make sure you understand the level of commitment needed. Some testing processes literally take an hour of your time, whilst others can be drawn out over days or even weeks. I’d also encourage you to find out about the product or service – it really helps if you are interested, or even intrigued, by the product.
But whatever your motivation, I hope that you’ll find testing products and services as worthwhile as I do. If products and services are influenced by people with hearing loss and shaped with our needs in mind, then they will work better for us. And that will help to make our daily lives easier.
About Pippa Highfield
Pippa is a marketing specialist and cochlear implant recipient. Since acquiring hearing loss in mid-life she now uses her skills to raise awareness and help promote Hearing Access.