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It’s hard to believe, but you don’t need representative users for user testing. Again, you don’t need representative users for user testing. Here’s why:
The premise of user testing is to find and fix usability problems by watching people use your product. The common misconception is that it’s important to test with people from your target audience to get useful results. The reality is that you can test your site or app with almost anyone if you’re writing engaging task scenarios for your participants.
“The best-kept secret of usability [user] testing is the extent to which it doesn’t much matter who you test. For most sites, all you really need are people who have used the Web enough to know the basics.”
—Steve Krug, Author of Don’t Make Me Think
User testing is not user research
One reason why companies spend huge amounts of time and money on targeting the right people for user tests, is because they see these tests as user/market research. They have all this information about who their users are (age, gender, income, etc.), and they believe it’s important for their user testing as well. But it isn’t.
“Testing always works, and even the worst test with the wrong user will show you important things you can do to improve your site.”
It might help to test with people who would actually use your product but it’s not necessary in order to get useful feedback. You can test any site or app with just about anyone (if you write engaging scenarios) and get lots of valuable insights on its usability.
But what if my website/app is only for specific users?
Well, even if it is, it doesn’t really matter since your site or app could be used by all kinds of people who will all experience different problems. Remember, user testing is about finding and fixing usability problems, not about understanding your target audience.
Just look at these examples of websites that are obviously meant to be used by specific users, but can still be tested with ordinary people to find usability problems if you just get the task scenarios right.
Fordaq – Website for timber merchants and wood professionals
If you don’t yet believe that it’s possible for almost anyone to test almost anything, go ahead and try to perform the following task on fordaq.com:
Imagine you’re running a furniture retail store, and you need a new supply of garden benches.
Go ahead and explore this site to find a garden bench you’d like to sell in your store, and try to find out how much it would cost to buy 50 pieces of it.
Please try not to use the search function and stop your recording before you click on “Send”.
Notice how unimportant it is that you’re not a timber merchant or a wood professional? The task above gives you just the right amount of information to start using the site and that’s already enough to discover first usability problems.
GameAnalytics – Analytics platform for game developers
Sometimes people are sceptical when I’m telling them that it’s even possible to test websites for developers with people who don’t know anything about the subject.
Read through this task scenario and try to test gameanalytics.com yourself to see how it actually works:
Imagine you’re developing an iPhone game and you want to find out how many players are able to reach the final level of this game, so you can adjust its difficulty if necessary.
Go ahead and explore this site for a few minutes and find out if GameAnalytics could help you get this kind of information. Please sign up and try to find out how many players have already reached the final level of the Demo Game.
You can finish your video after you’ve explored the Demo Game and tried to answer these questions:
How many people play the Demo Game every day?
How many new players are giving it a try each day?
How many of the players are actually paying for it?”
If the task scenario is engaging and tells people exactly what they need to do or find, almost anyone will be able to use a site and try to answer questions like the ones above.
29 N Under – E-commerce site for young female fashion lovers
The last example is an obvious one. Only because your website is aimed at people of certain demographics doesn’t mean you need to test it with users from this demographic.
“The fact that you’re 18 to 35 years old with a college degree does not cause you to buy a product. It may be correlated with the decision, but it doesn’t cause it.“
Instead of spending huge amounts of time and money on targeting the right people for testing, we can just start by carefully crafting a task scenario that’ll allow almost anyone to test the site:
Imagine one of your friends has invited you to her birthday party in 3 weeks. You know that she’s a real fashion lover and you’re looking for a nice gift for her.
Go ahead and explore this site to find a birthday present for your friend. Try to find out how much you would have to pay to get it delivered to you on time and finish your test.
Why user targeting can actually hurt your user testing
Many people want to test with their exact target audience because they think of user testing as market research. They don’t just want to find and fix usability problems – they also want to ask users about their opinions and how they would improve their product.
Instead of focusing on writing task scenarios that work (which is a requirement for finding and fixing usability problems), people get distracted by spending their time on targeting the right users and asking them questions about whether they like or dislike a site and other questions you shouldn’t ask in a user test.
It’s obvious that you can’t ask these type of questions if you’re testing with random people. The truth is, you shouldn’t even ask them if you’re testing with users from your target audience because people usually don’t know what they want. You could say that testing with your target audience is dangerous if you start to believe that it’s enough to ask people what they like or dislike about your product.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen many user tests that are full of these superficial questions, but lack any form of actionable task scenario that would motivate testers to actually use the website or app at hand. And I don’t want to say that testing with your target audience is bad – that would just be ignorant. But I truly believe that focusing too much on who you test with will eventually hurt your user testing, simply because you get distracted by all the details about demographics, psychographics and different tastes and opinions.
No more excuses not to test
User testing is a lot like running. It’s possible to spend a fortune on getting the perfect gear and spending hours on planning your training sessions. But if all you want is to be in better shape, it’s enough to just put on your shoes and start running.