User test session surprises

I am gearing up for a series of user interviews/test sessions slated tentatively for the end of this month. It’s been awhile since I’ve done one, over a year, and while it exists in muscle memory, the actual design of the sessions requires some review. Especially since the sessions will be facilitated by someone other than myself, someone with no background in running such sessions. Indi Young’s book Mental Models has a couple good short chapters on interviewing users which I often refer back to time and time again.

As I was sharing my plan prior to a stand-up meeting yesterday, I recounted how illustrative these sessions can be. You can craft what you consider to be the most elegant interface you have ever created, perfectly suited to the target customer, only to have a participant tell you bluntly that it sucks. Of course they don’t come out and say so, such cut and dry responses are not so useful, but the sessions are such a great way to learn what works and what doesn’t. And they keep you focused on what design is really about, creating “things” for someone other than yourself.

The above video is a short excerpt from one such session in many years ago. As I related yesterday, this test came as a total surprise. At the time I was creating a number of hardware based prototypes – embedding pressure sensors into everyday objects, in this case pillows, in order to control software. I created a version for Adults which use a complex sensor to control the creation of music, and a basic on/off sensor fashioned from a keyboard logic board, to control a children’s musical game. The game was extremely simple – the kids just had to reorder the elements of a song by sitting on pillows. It was a musical memory game but played on a larger scale. The software ran on an iMac but I envisioned it running on a console or PC.

My expectation was that the kids would be bored and that my concept was flawed. But within the scope of this test, the opposite proved to be true (later it was abandoned as my intuition proved accurate).

This is what I like most about user research, discovering these insights and surprises when watching people use a product. It’s a great way to learn about people, and of course, whether its a formal or informal session, an essential part of creating a usable product.