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How To Find Out What Users Really Experience

by Stefan Rössler on December 9, 2015 –

Muppet Show's Statler and Waldorf looking down from their balcony

Did you ever notice that user experience is a lot like health?

User experience designers are doctors. Developers are surgeons. Users are of course patients, and bad user experiences are like a disease.

I want to dedicate this article to the people who are creating these user experiences.

They are the ones who caused the disease in the first place—by designing a bad user experience.

They carry the disease. The good news is, they also carry the cure.

Screenshot of an overly complex desktop application to illustrate bad user experiences
The disease 🙂

The not-so-almighty user experience designer

If you run a website or work at a company and help them run their site or any other software, you are a user experience designer.

You may or may not think of yourself this way, but your decisions contribute to what users experience. The same is true for everyone on your team.

The question is, what is your contribution to this experience?

Forget about the idea of an almighty user experience designer.

Scene from Bruce Almighty movie

There is no savior coming to rescue you—you have to do it yourself.

It’s good to have a person who’s carrying the job title user experience designer.

It’s also fine to consult outside experts.

But, it’s even better to have people who really care about their work. No matter if they call it design, development, customer support or anything else.

And you could be one of them.

Have you ever seen a real user experience?

It’s almost funny …

We have huge amounts of data and many ways to make sense of it, but most of us have never seen a real user experience.

In theory we know everything about UX. We have graphs, numbers, and all sorts of representations to understand what our users experience.

Yet, real user experiences are something only few of us have ever seen.

The funny thing is, that it’s not some miracle, that only occurs on a full moon after you’ve sacrificed baby kittens.

No! You just have to watch someone using a smartphone, a laptop, a tablet, or whatever crazy device they just came up with.

Observing people is the easiest form of usability testing and it’s all it takes to see a real user experience.

Usability tests don’t guarantee great user experiences!

We’ve done hundreds of usability tests for our clients before we started Userbrain. Here’s what we typically do:

We get people to use, for example, our client’s website and observe them to find out what works and what doesn’t.

After we’ve analyzed the test videos, we create reports and presentations to communicate our findings to our clients.

No matter how good these reports are, there’s one important truth about them. A report can never show you what users really experience.

Executive summary of a usability report
Executive summary we provide our clients with, to inform them about our usability findings.

Please don’t get me wrong, usability reports are useful.

You’ll get a list of your website’s most severe usability issues.

Often times you get suggestions for improvement.

Maybe you even get highlight clips to see where users struggle.

You get statistics about effectiveness and efficiency, and you may even get satisfaction ratings.

In short, you get plenty of data about your usability problems. And you may even know how to fix them.

But you don’t know much about your real user experience.

Data cannot show real user experiences

Whenever someone is doing a usability test for you, they have to communicate their findings.

They need to tell you what they’ve found by showing you the data.

But data only represents the truth. It’s not the truth itself.

If you want to see what users really experience, you have to observe them yourself.

Not only where they struggle; you have to observe everything they do.

What are they looking for? What do they want right now? What are they thinking? Do they understand what we’re presenting them with? What kind of atmosphere did we create for them? Did we create an enjoyable/comfortable/efficient experience for them? How does it make them feel?

Not on some artificial scale, but in their own words.

Not in general, but in every moment.

You need to do your own usability testing!

Experts will always tell you that usability testing is complicated.

Their income depends on your perception of these tests as too hard to do by yourself.

And it’s true.

Usability tests and reports we do for our clients are actually too complicated to be done by anyone.

But that’s because we’re trying to translate our understanding into data.

We want to explain our findings to our clients.

We want to transform feelings into words and statistics, and that’s not a trivial thing to do.

It took us years to come up with a useful blueprint for communicating our usability findings.

But there’s an easy way around this complexity—do your own tests!

Even if you’re doing it completely wrong, usability testing always works.

Observe what users experience by yourself—don’t leave it to others

You have heard about various usability methods?

You know the difference between formative and summative testing?

You’ve even learned how to moderate a usability test?

Then please forget about it for a second.

There’s only one important thing, if you want to find out what users experience.

And that’s to observe what they actually experience.

Just sit back, relax, and watch them do whatever they do!

Take notes if you want, but don’t interrupt their experience.

Statler and Waldorf (the balcony guys) are laughing and interrupting the user experience
Don’t interrupt the experience!

Fade into the background

We’re sometimes inviting people for in-person usability tests.

It’s typical to ask burning research questions during these sessions as well.

And it’s fine to combine usability testing with user research, but it’s not the same as observing a real user experience.

You will find insightful answers—there’s no doubt about it.

Fade into the background…

But your questions are not part of what people usually experience.

How do you avoid these disturbing questions?

An easy way is to prepare a specific task scenario to engage your users.

Give them something to do and observe how they’re doing it.

Let them focus on this task and remind them to think out loud and say everything they have on their mind.

Become the silent observer

Experts call themselves moderators whenever they are facilitating a usability test.

What a huge mistake if you aim to observe a real user experience.

A moderator, however skilled he is, will always influence the user experience.

Instead of being a moderator, you can fade into the background and become a silent observer.

Forget about yourself and your own agenda and focus on your user.

Try to empathize and see the world through her eyes.

What is she experiencing right now?

How does this affect her mood?

Is there anything you should change to improve her experience?

How does this relate to what other users may experience?

Here’s why it works …

Watching videos of someone using your site or app, gives you an unparalleled understanding of what people experience.

You begin to understand your users, empathize with them, and learn how they interact with you.

You’ll know what they’re feeling and why they do what they are doing—or why they refuse to do it.

And if you keep observing them and build your business (or whatever you’re making) from a place of empathy and a desire to create better experiences for them, those values bubble up into everything you do, and that never goes unnoticed by your user.

“Your website shouldn’t be optimized just to make people click what you want them to click. Your website needs to make people feel like they belong. When they do, they want to return and to become members, customers and advocates.”Bernadette Jiwa

Understanding what people feel and Why is far more valuable than we think.

That’s why we made Userbrain, and that’s why we offer easy usability testing on a regular basis.

Understanding what users really experience is like taking care of your patients.

It’s one thing to look at the graphs and numbers, but it’s something different to really know how they’re doing.

You can request a free demo from Userbrain if you want to see how well this works for your site. And you can always email me at if you have any questions. Thanks 🙂

  • Rolf

    Hi Markus, hi Stefan,

    thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    However, I strongly disagree with the metaphor you chose. The user is certainly not the patient. It’s not the user who has to be cured. “Health” is the norm, diseases would be specific exceptions. Good “user experience” on the other hand is not at all the norm, nor is it a unique occurrence, it can indeed occur in various shapes, colors and functions. Sorry, but I think that just does not support a straight line of thoughts.

    Also, it seems like the article got a bit out of hand. The title suggests you will present a specific method to assess user experience. Instead the article goes on and on about the general concept of ux, the imagined role of the ux designer, broadening the concept basically to anyone involved in a digital project. And in the end you say: we’re doing user tests. You know, content also contributes heavily to user experience. And not keeping a promise, in your case not delivering what your title promises, does not really work in its favor.

    I know it is a blog, so preliminary thoughts are of course allowed. And I imagine the process of writing was probably interesting in an exploratory way. But I would recommend not to share this type of stuff in a professional network where people know their stuff. No hard feelings, just saying. You do not want to be noise, do you? Have a look at Brad Frost’s website:

    • Thanks for your reply, Rolf 🙂

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments and really liked the message on Then I turned bullshit on and it made me laugh out loud 😀


      I don’t know where you’re coming from. You mention a professional network, which will probably be LinkedIn or something along these lines. Please tell me if that’s true, and we will rethink our promotion strategy for blog posts like this one.

      And you’re right. I really enjoyed the process of writing the article. It was big fun and I hope you enjoyed your read, even if you don’t agree with the health metaphor. I could go on now forever and try to explain, why I think the metaphor is valid, but I can totally understand your point. And that’s enough for now 🙂

      To be honest, I wasn’t thinking about usability experts when I was writing this article. I choose to get a bit out of hand with it, because I wanted non-experts to realize their power and how easy it is for them to find out what users experience—if they do it on their own. And still, it’s good to know that experts like you are out there listening, even if our signal is still noisy to you. I hope you keep coming back in the future, and tell us whether we’re getting better or not.

      Thank you!

      • Rolf

        Hi Stefan,

        I got here from a Xing Group for digital experts, Markus posted it there. That’s probably why I had high expectations when following the link. I think the post probably works for staff dealing with online maintenance within an organization. But for someone to really learn something from this post, you would have to believe the reader has never applied user tests or any other type of qualitative user research.

        Maybe I was a bit grumpy last night when I wrote my comment. Sorry about that. is generally someone to keep an eye on.

        Good luck with your enterprise!

        • Thanks for the info 🙂

          You’re right, the post is clearly aimed at people with no (or little) experience with user testing and qualitative research in general.

          And thanks for mentioning again. The guy looks very interesting!

          Thanks and good luck to you as well 🙂

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