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How to run smooth user testing sessions

Some key learnings from how we have developed and improved our user testing process

Profile image of Bryn Taylor

Aug 22, 2018

Jan 13, 2022



 min read

How to run smooth user testing sessions

First, some context

I’m currently the sole product designer at Thriva. We’re an early stage health-tech startup. Our vision is to be the world’s first personalised healthcare service. At Thriva we strongly believe in customer-centred design — that means speaking to customers early and often. So much so, that customer insight is one of our four core business functions.

Part of my role has involved defining and developing our user testing process. For the past year or so we’ve been running user testing sessions with our customers. The greater understanding we have of our client’s motivations, needs, and frustrations — the more useful products we can build. I’ve learnt a lot by being hands-on through this process.

Hopefully, these tips can be of use to people in a similar situation. Or perhaps you’ve run some sessions before, but don’t feel you’re getting the most from them. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to focus on in-person sessions as I’ve found they work the best for Thriva. But, I realise this isn’t always possible — so some of these points can also be applied to video chat or phone sessions.

Keep it personal, keep it 1 on 1

I think this is a really important point to start off with. A huge part of running a successful user testing session is understanding how you can get the most valuable insight from your participant, in the most efficient way.

The session should not feel like an interview — it should feel like an informal chat.

Ensuring the person you are testing with feels comfortable is one of the quickest ways to achieve this. Turning up at the office of a company you know relatively little about is a daunting experience for many (myself included). Working out how you can remove external anxieties for the participant is a really valuable exercise.

Only have 2 people in the room at any point. One person to lead the session and one person is your testing participant. Each additional person in the room can dramatically increase anxiety or discomfort. Instead of an extra person in the room to take notes, try video calling a colleague so they can take notes from outside the room.

The session should not feel like an interview  —  it should feel like an informal chat. Always remember that the participant is helping you out and be mindful of that. Valuable insight comes from genuine, natural, and unforced conversations.

Preparation is (really) key

This should be a given — but make sure you are well prepared to run the session. Book a meeting room — a quiet, private space for the session makes a big difference.

Give yourself time beforehand to make sure the room is set up. You should be familiar with the script you will be talking through. Make sure the technology has been tested and is working as expected — there’s nothing worse than finding the session didn’t record or your colleague was unable to hear to make notes.

Also, bare-in-mind that your participant may turn up for the session early. I like to make sure I am ready for the session at least 15 minutes before you are due to start.

Actively think about your body language

I am no behavioural expert — but awareness of how you portray yourself and the signals your body gives off are incredibly important. Here are a few small things have helped me through the process.

Firstly, make sure to smile. A lot. Make the participant feel welcome and glad that they’re given you their time. Have an open, welcoming posture when you are sat down. Make eye contact with the participant — engage with them and show you are interested in what they have to say. Nod your head in agreement as they talk — this can also be a gentle nudge for them to talk further on a subject and give you deeper insight.

Awareness of how you portray yourself and the signals your body gives off are incredibly important.

Open your mind

Enter the session with as open a mind as you can. Be prepared to learn new things and be shocked by the way your product is being used. An open mind helps keep those (almost impossible to remove) biases at bay. Be inquisitive, curious and willing to get the best outcomes from the session. The sessions shouldn’t be run purely to feed your ego — don’t come out of a session with an ‘I told you so’ mentality. That’s not going to help anything in the wider scheme of things.

Be prepared to learn new things and be shocked by the way your product is being used

It is great to have a goal set out before the user testing, but putting too much emphasis on seeing certain things will narrow your focus and add bias to the way questions are asked.

Share outcomes and next steps

What’s the point in putting all this time and effort into running smooth user testing sessions if nothing ever develops from the insight? Thinking about what happens after the session is just as important as the session itself.

Defining the next stages should be dictated by the importance of the outcomes and what stage of the product development process you are at. Prioritising is crucial. Referring back to the goal of the testing sessions can help to prioritise these outcomes.

A little thing I like to do is share a summary of each session to our internal ‘customer feedback’ Slack channel. This will typically include a few important highlights, a link to the notes that were taken, as well as a screen recording of the session (I highly recommend Loom for this). This allows people to dive deeper if something is particularly relevant to their work. This also gives people access to the raw insight as it happens and allows the knowledge to spread wider than just the core project team. Customer insight is useful and important for everyone — no matter what your role is. A company-wide culture of testing is the aim.

Example of a post-session summary I would share

Thanks for making it this far!

As a little thank you to those that made it this far — here’s a link to the script that we use for our user testing at Thriva. The script is broken down into five stages — welcome, context questions, introduction to prototype, tasks and a quick debrief. Feel free to tweak, develop or rip to pieces as you see fit.