Product Design Lessons

User Testing  |   Lesson #37

It’s OK. Let Users Guide User Tests

Learn how to let test participants seek solutions that aren’t necessarily the ones you expect.

Testing a product workflow like a signing up or checkout process requires more than asking someone to check it out. You need to plan the test itself, which requires asking questions without leading test participants to your conclusions. After all, the purpose of user testing is to learn from other people's points of view, not to impose your assumptions upon them.

User testing helps us test a hypothesis to discover if what we're about to build will, in fact, solve the problems they're meant to address. But people who participate in a user test need to know more than "we need you to test this." They need context. Here's how to prepare test participants so you'll get the constructive feedback you need to improve your work.

1. Decide on what you want to improve or focus

Seeking general feedback will lead to vague answers. The best way to both help participants understand their role in the testing process and to glean useful feedback is to ask questions beyond "what do you think of this?" Good user tests focus on specific questions such as:

  • How do people research accounting products on
  • Why do people drop off when they have to enter billing information during the process?
  • How do people organize design work within the context of a project?

2. Let users explore with a protoype

User testing isn't limited to existing products. We recommend using a tappable, sketch-based prototypes rather than storyboards or individual sketches for testing websites or apps still in development. Just keep in mind that the participants are providing their views. Take notes as they try to figure out how to accomplish a specific task.

3. Ask questions that don't lead to your own conclusions

You have to be both specific and ambiguous. This apparent contradiction sets up people with a task or problem — but does not hint at a solution. For example:

  • Walk me through how you might checkout and pay on our site.
  • Where on this site would you go to find the company's contact information?
  • What do you think a "project" means within the context of this application?
  • Let's say you're shopping for a gift. How would you use this to shop for someone else?
  • Which visual elements interest you most on this home page?

Good questions give participants something to figure out. When they have to think, you’re sure to get better feedback than when you inadvertently lead them to answers you already knew. Working without your preconceptions of how the product should work, they’re providing valuable information about how it appears to work. Non-leading questions means asking that people perform a task without giving away hints as to how you want to solve the problem.

About the instructor


Ben Gremillion is a Design Writer at ZURB. He started his career in newspaper and magazine design, saw a digital future, and learned HTML in short order. He facilitates the ZURB training courses.