117 Words

Concept Testing

A design method that gets us real data, real fast.

Somewhere between the purely quantitative testing method of user surveys and the exceedingly qualitative results of user testing lies concept testing — a peculiar but extremely helpful form of testing that you could be using right now. It’s about getting information on something before you build, before customers are asking for support and before journalists are writing up their reviews. That's why it's good stuff.

A little while back, here at ZURB, we decided that concept testing was poorly represented in the online services space, and we resolved to fix that. We wanted to influence how designers get data and what they do with it, and so we created Verify. Verify is a concept testing app because we get responses remotely and in bulk (quantitative) on things like memory, or intent, or success (qualitative). We also don’t need a live site, or even a prototype to get this information — sketches, mockups, most any screen representation is fair game. Let’s look at how you could start pulling this in to your process.

Do Colleagues Dream of Cupcake Deliveries?

That bit about testing sketches? We mean it. If what you’re looking for is high-level feedback on perception, memory, or impression you are absolutely able to use sketches for concept testing. On your next project, try this out:

  • Create a detailed sketch (read: not just boxes and lines. If that’s all you’re testing you may as well test a blank page) for a core page, ideally something positioning a product or service. For our purposes, imagine a cupcake delivery service.
  • Take your sketch and go to a colleague who isn’t familiar with the project. Maybe bring them a cupcake, or a beer. Not everyone wants sugary things at work.
  • In exchange for said sugary/alcoholic treat, show them your sketch for 5 seconds. Count it off in your head.
  • Hide your sketch, maybe under that pile of Weimaraner Owner’s Quarterly on their desk.
  • Ask them what they remembered, either words or phrases.
  • Repeat with colleagues until you run out of cupcakes or beer.

You just did a 5-second concept test. What people remember from a sketch clues you into first impressions, and how well you’re communicating the value or intent of a service. If everyone looks at your cupcake delivery service sketch and wonders where they sign up for the pr0n, something is obviously amiss. You have quantitative data (as evidenced by the cupcake and beer depletion) and qualitative results (as evidenced by their subjective memory results). Concept testing. Tell your friends.

We Can Test It For You Wholesale

If concept testing sounds interesting to you, there’s a lot of tools out there to help you get it done. We gave you one easy, low-fi example of doing a concept test, but you don’t always have to shuffle around your office with a tray of dessert and a cooler of Blue Moon.

Online Tools

Verify, which we mentioned is a tool we’re partial to. With Verify you can run memory tests, mood tests, click tests, yes/no (success) tests and a number of other types of concept tests. All designed to get you actionable data, all available (in a limited fashion) for free.

Clue, another little app we developed, might be more your speed if you want to run public memory tests. Think of it as the memory test from Verify, but it’s always free. Less test types. More cash for cupcakes. OK, we’ll drop the cupcake thing now.

Finding Your Audience

In user testing, feedback from colleagues or the folks down at Starbucks (most of them will take a few minutes for you if you buy their no-foam, super-tall, non-fat caramel macchiato jubilee) is often sufficient, and for some projects, you’ll want to collaborate with your client to run your test against potential users.

With concept testing we need some volume, so it’s important that you get your test out to a decent sample. Online tools help here by making the test available, but you need to find people.

Enroll is a service that lets you purchase results in Verify, results sourced from a pool of testers. You can simply say how many results you want and pay a nominal fee.

On the cheaper side, consider reaching out to social networks. If your company has a presence on Facebook or Twitter, ask them to help out. People love to give feedback, and they love to knock out short little tasks like this. It makes them feel like they’re part of something bigger and, in a strange way, like they have some power over you. That’s okay. We know how special you are.

Mailing lists, forums and other online audiences are useful as well, especially since they can be so focused. But be prepared for some very ... strident feedback. People who frequent forums are not kidding around. In our earlier analogy, they’d be the people who bought 20 cupcakes so they could evaluate the difference in frosting weight, then incinerate one in their homemade calorimeter .

The Three Stigmata of Concept Testing

Or, what we ask, and why.

Beyond all this talk of cupcakes and tools there’s a core issue: what do we do this for, and how do we get the results we need? Much of that comes down to what you ask.


When you’re looking for feedback on something nebulous (like sketches, or incomplete mockups) it helps to be specific for your testers. Consider this test we ran.

We didn’t ask “where would you go” or “what’s the first thing you saw,” we asked “where would you go to search for a product you want to buy.” This maps much more closely to the task an actual user would be trying to accomplish, and our data is going to better inform us of how well a concept would perform under fire.


Haha, sike! You have to be careful about being too specific. In the above example, search is pretty agnostic, and so is product. What can skew your results is referring to terminology or elements that draw users unnaturally, or don’t map to what a user may be trying to do. Consider this (admittedly hyperbolic) example test. Take a quick look and come right back, there's more to discuss.

Back. OK, which one do you think people are going to pick? Best Buy, of course. We reference the name of the site right there in the question. This is such an obvious example you might just think, "‘derp, of course, I wouldn’t do that’ but it’s tricky sometimes."

What if you’re testing where people would go click sign up for a service called “Premium Pizazz Cupcake Delivery” and you have a button that says “Get Pizazz!”. Your test might show that most people go to the right place ... but how many people think “I need to get some cupcakes up in” and click on a button called Get Pizazz. Yeah. None. But your special terminology has mislead you into thinking your call to action works, when it probably doesn’t. That leads us to another thing to remember.

Know Your Audience

Temet nosce, right? We all saw The Matrix. More than knowing yourself though, know your audience. If you’re distributing your test to 200 strangers, remember that some of them are going to 15, some are going to be 70. Some will think websites are second nature, and some will wonder why the thingamajigger can’t conflurbulate the whatsit.

When possible, consider demographics (shameless plug: Verify will actually let you filter results by demographics) and infer how different groups will perceive what you’re showing them. Men and women, for all the quality we know of, will still approach certain things in certain ways. Age, income level, location, language ... everything can play a factor.

The Tester in the High Castle

Concept testing as a method is both extremely flexible and very powerful. You can adapt this to the tools you have at hand, right down a pen and paper, and scale to mocked-up concepts you show to thousands. Your results can be simple and focused, like how many people found the right call to action, or nuanced and complex, like what their perception was of your messaging.

Just remember to focus what you ask, and how you ask it, and who you’re asking. Consider the results not as definitive but as qualitative and quantitative. This can be something you do in lieu of user testing, or before, or after, or concurrently. You can pair this with a simple survey to get truly qualitative data. It’s all on you.

Now, bonus points if you identified the famous author who inspired all of the section titles in this ZURBword.

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