I remember one of my first interactions with remote user testing. I was at Code Computer Love in Manchester and there was a brief mention of a website that runs usability testing with real users online called WhatUsersDo. I was hooked. Since then we have gone on to create our own conversion rate optimisation agency, User Conversion, which has its own remote user testing software running behind it. This software is used privately by clients – but I can assure you we run a lot of remote user testing!
Our software has grown to cover 5,000 qualified testers in a couple of years but my favourite individual tester of all? My mum. She is your typical, wonderful mum who knows what she likes and holds her iPhone 20 inches from her face, whilst squinting and tilting her head back to call someone. Texting is still rather advanced but the odd emoji icon is used in day-to-day speak.
In this article I will be discussing whether non-technical, single user testing is a valid user testing technique and the benefits thereof. I am firmly within the pro-category and shall explain why.
BEFORE WE BEGIN: This article mentions a type of non-technical, single user testing technique called ‘The Mum Test’. It is not a technique that I have created – indeed, it is a fairly common colloquial industry term. If you Google it you will see various references to it. It is important to note that the ‘mum’ is not being mentioned because she is a woman, old or having any other stereotypical attribute. Neither does she necessarily have to be a mother. As will be clarified in the article, the objective of the test is to choose a person you can trust and who is not hesitant to express himself / herself about what they think about your website. Ideally this person should not be tech-savvy so that they would not use their IT-background to circumvent usability limitations. Still, to avoid any unintentional connotations, we will be using the words ‘mum’, ‘dad’, ‘tester’ and the like interchangeably.
The User is Drunk Started it All…
A while ago Richard Littauer set up Theuserisdrunk.com – a great website with a simple premise; your website should be so simple, a drunk person could use it. His very successful venture has led to being selective about the clients he uses and reaching over 300k visits on his site while being interviewed by some of the big tech giants such as Gizmodo and VWO. Today, his doors are closed (a nice compelling article as to why right here) but his latest venture is one that is very indicative of this article. Theuserismymom.com.
As Richard puts is, his “mom is tired of your shit”. His mum (note: English for ‘mom’) does sound lovely: “My mom tutors high school students and likes quilting and hiking. She yells at her computer, doesn’t know what a twitter is, and struggles to find windows she’s minimized.” Sound familiar? Here’s what The Next Web said about it.
The values are simple. Parents can be a great ‘source’ for non-technical, single user testing. Generalizing, they can give an honest feedback and would be in the 45 to 85 age group (of those users reading this article). They remember the days when computers were non-existent, while phone books and teletext ruled the world. If that is the case (remember that not everyone who is more than 45 is non-technical), then their lack of interaction with computers makes them a fresh pair of eyes for the site they are reviewing. They are not blindsided by ‘trends’ and ‘best practice’ techniques that we so often wrap ourselves in, such as flat design or hamburger menus. Such a person reviewing a website is simply stripping that site down to its core foundations and asking the question “can someone use this site”. Whether they are persuaded or not enough to complete their action is a different story.
Websites Classified as ‘Simple’, Often Aren’t
In the above prose we have often returned to the fact that the non-technical, single user test is great when we are trying to determine the simplicity of a website. The logic behind it is stated by the author of ‘The User is Drunk’ – ‘your website should be so simple your mum should be able to use it’. But what is simplicity? Is it simply something that is very usable? Is it subjective? It is dove-tailed from the term ‘clean’?
The term is a sub-set of what is usable but the two are very different. Just because something is simple does not mean it is usable and visa-versa. Equally, in what the below quote is trying to explore, there is a difference between simplicity, usability and capability. Extra capability does not require more features – the same way ease of use does not require simplicity.
Make it simple and people won’t buy. Given a choice, they will take the item that does more. Features win over simplicity, even when people realize that it is accompanied by more complexity. You do it too, I bet. Haven’t you ever compared two products side by side, comparing the features of each, preferring the one that did more? Why shame on you, you are behaving, well, behaving like a normal person. Don Norman, Author of The Design of Everyday Things
Norman continues to champion “don’t reason your way to a solution — observe real people.” This shows an understanding that simplicity is defined by molding the experience of users to one that is streamlined and widely accepted and understood. With Norman, the focus is on features and carving away features or removing distraction.
This reflects a phenomenon, often referred to as the paradox of choice, which states that when there is too much choice, the user cannot make an informed decision. This can happen in anything from picking a product, to selecting which food to have on a menu, to web design. The theory is that restricting that choice, or making the choice more simple, converts more users.
Tell me, when optimising a checkout and you are asked to reduce the number of fields within the checkout process, are you doing that to make the process more simple or improve usability or both? Removing checkout fields can sometimes yield a negative effect as this study shows. In fact, in this study, the attempt at making something ‘more simple’ actually decreased usability and reduced conversions by 14.23%.
The morale of the story? Usability and simplicity are different … but are interlinked.
Books such as Designing Web Usability by Jakob Neilsen and Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think are examples of literature on the topic. For real life applications, I recommend you watch any one of Steve Job’s keynotes and take note of phrases such as “look how simple this is” or “it’s so simple”. You will be amazed that the word “simple” is mentioned much more than you would expect.
When is the Non-Technical Single User Test Appropriate?
When user testing, we try and match the testers with the site’s personas. For example, if the website is selling the Tesla Powerwall, I assume, parents are not quite the right nor expected demographic. But does that mean that mums or dads should not test the site irrespectively?
The purpose of non-technical single user testing is not to match demographics or even psychographics to that of the desired persona, but instead, to determine the simplicity of the website which again reverts us to the question we proposed above. When your carrying out this form of testing, the test users’ thoughts and feelings should not be taken as verbatim. They are still subjective. But they are small, bright sparks that might be important for future hypotheses.
Let us assume you run Lands End and you ask your mother or father to act as your tester (the non-technical person you are entrusting with giving you an honest opinion) to find a sweater that they on the site. They might easily navigate to the sweaters page but on the page could make a flippant comment about the price – after all GBP 18.56 – GBP 43.83 is a mouthful – “Where’s the price? Oh wait, there it is”. Being a usability tester he / she falls victim to what we call an acceptance bias. This is where the user is fully aware they are being tested, accept this situation and are more forgiving as a result.
In this case, the rush to change all prices because your tester tells you to might not be appropriate. However, this insight can be validated using other data sets (“are other people experiencing this issue?” “is this actually an issue?” “is this losing us money or, if improved, can we increase our revenue?”) and experiment. This process alone is a sub-set of conversion rate optimisation.
As a result, the non-technical single user test is appropriate in almost every case, but should be understood that it is predominately a more limited version of usability testing, not user testing – the two of which I would define as very different. The former being that of finding gaps, holes, issues or opportunities with the flow or journey of a site while user testing involves associating a voice to the target customer on their perceptual thoughts and feelings towards a website – usability or otherwise. Ultimately, this comes down to your testing script and scenarios.
Use a non-technical, single user test to test your website. Why not? It could spark ideas for experiments or even identify holes or gaps you never knew existed. It is extremely easy and actually quite common. You can pay for services such as Theuserismymom or use software to record your own test session (ideally both screen and voice).
Please be aware of the limitations in such an approach. It is recommended that non-technical single user testing techniques are used in conjunction with other forms of usability testing and user experience discovery methods to truly understand the value of your website and opportunities that lie within it.
(Lead image source: Mister G.C. – Creative Commons License)