How to test your product with people


User testing is a seemingly giant mystery. Having formerly worked as a journalist, asking mountains of questions to someone I’ve never met before is like second nature for me. I moved to ‘Silicon Valley’, land of the startups, a couple of months ago and have since been getting asked a lot about user testing from engineering friends. It’s possible to start putting your product in front of people without having a UX homie in the house.Below are 11 practices I follow that help inform better product design. I learned and did these things at myGengo, RockMelt and in graduate school. The list below is not holistic and may not work for your team or product. Use your best judgement, it’s qualitative research. And designers, I invite you to critique these points.

  1. Test the product, not the person. “Thanks so much for coming in, we really really appreciate it and value your feedback. Our product is still in the early stages and we want to find out what is confusing and what doesn’t work. You can quit any time and the more things you can find wrong with it, the better. It’s also helpful if you talk outloud while you’re using [product]. It helps us know what you’re thinking and when you’re stuck.”
  2. Be an excellent listener. Be humble. If you disgaree with an opinion, keep it to yourself and make a note of it on paper.
  3. Think of the guest coming in as a person, not a user. I avoid the word ‘user’ as much as I can but sometimes it creeps in. Get to know them, discover who they are as people. Just hang out for a few minutes until you’re both comfortable.
  4. Take notes on paper, not on your laptop or phone; it makes you the ‘magical computer person’ more accessible and human. It’s ok if you need a computer open to chat with people in another room or do some recording. Digitizing notes afterwards is a good idea.
  5. Avoid leading questions that impose a value. Avoid: “Do you think this is a good color?” Instead ask “What do you think about this color?”
  6. Know what you want out of the session. What features are you testing? There’s a fine balance between keeping the session open ended and getting what you want out of it. But in the end, you are leading the session. If you are going down a path where you are learning something interesting, follow it and probe with questions. If you find yourself in a time suck, take back the lead. Make note of  body language and facial expressions.
  7. Ask about expectations: “It seems like that button was hard for you to find, where did you expect to see it?”
  8. Don’t be scared of the people coming in. They’re just people. But, like sharks, they’ll sense your fear.
  9. Aim for a half an hour session padded with questions at the front and the end. Eventually,both of you will get tired. Pad a little time in between sessions for you to recenter.
  10. Debrief after the session with your guest and the team. Thank them graciously for their time. Ask if you can send follow up questions later. I like to organize my findings as follows (and props to Matt Beebe for this structure)
    • a. engineering bugs (broken button)
    • b. design bugs (misaligned pixels)
    • c. backburner (possible problems, feature requests, things that need deeper thinking or data analysis)
  11. Have fun

Tips from uxperts to help you get started


Nina Mehta is a writer and product design leader in Brooklyn, New York. She began her design career in journalism and has been writing online for 20+ years. Nina is from outside Chicago and has since lived and worked in San Francisco, Berlin, London, and Tokyo. Learn about Nina at