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Cognition

Leaving the Nest

A few months ago I was asked to assist leading some moderated qualitative usability testing sessions. I’ll be honest: I had little-to-no experience speaking with users, so at the start of the project I didn’t feel like I was fully equipped for the task. The idea of being in a room with someone I didn’t know for an hour and guiding them through a handful of scenarios to validate our design didn’t sound as good as one of my typical design days. However, I knew it would be a good learning experience and said I’d help out.

My first session was difficult. We were focusing on testing the effectiveness of the content hierarchy within our redesign. The conversation involved a different audience type than the sessions I had previously observed so it didn’t follow an identical structure. I forgot a lot of what I was supposed to ask and needed assistance, but as the day progressed I felt as though I was getting the hang of things and learned that, as long as I got the users’ impressions and answers, my script didn’t need to be quite so exact.

Experiencing the testing firsthand helped clear up a few design troubles, and will also likely change parts of my broader workflow as a designer. For example, it’s made me consider the importance of giving more context to people as they move through a site, which can be done with placement, microcopy, and even animations. It also helped me to more thoughtfully scrutinize how some interactions might be triggered from multiple areas of the same page.

Most importantly, I have a better understanding of how to lead these kinds of conversations, and what to do to make the situation of leading one-on-one user testing feel less bizarre. I also learned that leading usability testing is all about asking good questions and listening to every bit of feedback a subject has about their needs and intentions for using your product. I’m fortunate that I got to see firsthand that use-cases are all different to some degree — just like the people using the product or site. Try as we might, there’s never going to be a solution that works perfectly for everybody.

As a designer, you probably have a set idea of your job responsibilities and your general sense of place within your field. Because there are so many ways to specialize in what you do, and so much of what we do involves intense focus, it can be easy for our days to all start looking similar. Usability testing was a way for me to break out of my standard routine and push myself to adapt. Sometimes you can surprise yourself when you (and others) push yourself to try new things. Rely on co-workers and other people to help guide you. These new skill sets help make you a more informed, well-rounded designer.

The next time you’re faced with a task outside of your comfort zone, stop for a moment and consider how you can learn and improve from it. It might end up changing your perception and helping you in ways you weren’t expecting.

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