From 2015–2017, I worked as a Product Designer at a Seattle-based startup named SkyKick. During that time I established the company’s usability practice. Here are my main takeaways from that process.
1. Start Earlier Than You Think
One of my favorite startup quotes is from Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn. “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
The same thing applies to testing your product with users.
You may think your feature isn’t ready to be tested. Or you need another day to “dial in” that green. But believe me, earlier is better. So resist the urge to hold off any longer.
At SkyKick, we started user testing one of our products after it went into beta. After the engineering team spent six months working on it.
After three usability tests, it was clear that a key part of the new experience was confusing to users. Had we shown early prototypes to users, we could have caught this issue earlier, saving our team time and engineering hours.
2. Don’t Worry About Credentials
Ah, imposter syndrome. We meet again.
When I first started at SkyKick, I worried it wasn’t my place to do usability testing. Why? Because I was the Product Designer, not the User Researcher. Because many of my co-workers came from Microsoft, a land of large budgets and full-scale usability tests conducted by researchers with 20+ years experience—like this guy.
But then the same thing kept happening.
A few weeks after launching a new feature, our Customer Support team would bubble up issues to our Product Manager (PM), which the PM would communicate to me, and try to schedule time in the next sprint to fix it. Best case scenario? A fix shipped in 4 weeks.
This reactive approach to product design was slow, expensive, and frustrating. So I decided to fix it.
I got approval from our VP of Product to start working on usability initiatives and found two equally practical and helpful texts that served as the blueprints for my process: Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy and Nielsen Norman’s How to Conduct Usability Studies.
The results speak for themselves. The first study led to a redesign of one of our company’s most visible products. But more importantly, it led to a better understanding of how users interact with our products.
3. Start Small, Start Cheap
Early on I had visions of two-way mirrors, expensive recording software, and detailed reports that colleagues could reference years from now. Usability session invites would be sent to everyone in the company. Brown-bag lunches would be held to discuss results.
But then reality set in. I was conducting these studies in addition to my full-time job as the company’s only Product Designer. And we didn’t have a budget.
I decided to focus on quick wins and visible results.
Limit studies to a small group until you have your process down
Technical issues, recruiting woes, and debriefing issues will take a few sessions to figure out. During that time, try to avoid wasting people’s time as possible.
I recommend limiting the first few usability sessions to the Product and Design teams, and then broadening it to include folks from Engineering, Marketing, Sales, and Customer Support.
Recruit from family and friends
No budget or resources for recruiting? Ask family and friends. They’ll be happy to help, and understanding if not everything goes to plan.
For the first usability study I conducted, I worked with a PM to recruit individuals from our networks that fit our target profiles. We recorded the interviews and offered them $10 gift certificates as a thank you.
After sharing the study results with the rest of the company, teams were excited and more willing to help with recruiting and resources.
Use free recording software
Don’t worry about the fancy usability recording software just yet. For the first study, I used the free product trial by Validately so I could record the screens, faces, and audio of our participants. Later we switched to Skype because it was already familiar with our users, and our company already paid for it.
4. Don’t Overdo Reporting
I thought I needed “best practice” reporting to be taken seriously and compiled the following deliverables for my first study:
- Highlight video of usability issues (17 mins)
- Excel spreadsheet of product issues ordered by severity
- Word document with methodology, observations, issues, and recommendations (27 pages)
Then the VP of Product asked me to quantify where I had spent my time and I realized how long I had spent editing videos and compiling reports.
My goal in doing this was to take my audience on the same journey I had taken with the users. I wanted them to feel the same pain I felt as a user struggled with a simple task using our interface. Our wince at how long it took a user to locate the button we thought was so obvious. But the truth is, there’s no substitute for having your audience be there with you to experience it first hand. So I switched to a more lightweight approach.
5. Show, Don’t Tell
My new approach to usability consisted of a simple technique mentioned in Steve Krug’s book. Instead of conducting the usability tests and interviews alone, compiling the findings alone, and then sharing the results, I invited my colleagues to participate in all three parts.
I blocked off four and a half hours on the calendars of my team members for usability testing.
- Each usability session would last an hour
- Sessions consisted of a pre-interview, tasks, and post-interview
- After each session, observers recorded the top three issues observed by the participant
- After all three sessions we shared our results over lunch (Pro Tip: Order from the good lunch place, and don’t skimp on the cookies.)
- Following the meeting, I sent out an email summarizing the day’s discussions
This new approach would not catch all usability issues, but it would catch the most important ones. And at a startup, those are the ones we should focus on.
6. Sell, Sell, Sell
One of the things that surprised me about transitioning from a career in marketing to design was how much I would rely on my old skillset to get things done.
To start a new usability practice, you need to be able to sell your company on its value. Here are some ways to do that:
Share small wins
Get people excited by showing them early results of your efforts. Post small case studies explaining what you learned and how it made the product better around high-traffic areas in your office. Compile a short highlight reel to show at quarterly company meetings.
Help others accomplish their goals
Tell the sales team about the insights you uncovered during pre-interviews about buying preferences. Share user quotes with the marketing team to inform product messaging.
Get others invested
After you get your process down, open up live usability sessions to other teams. Host brown-bag lunches so a larger audience can see and ask questions about your work.
Make it easy to share your findings
Store your studies in a shared library (we used SharePoint) that interested parties can access at any time. Keep summary emails short and to the point.