Testing times: adapting user insights research for a new era

The ability to travel and observe how people live in their cultural context is a privilege, and an asset to a researcher’s toolkit. It enables us to elicit the insights that can develop new commercial strategies, and it allows our design and technical teams to create the new products and experiences that deliver critical benefits. So, a global pandemic would, at least on the face of it, seem a high barrier to the ‘day job’.

However, to preserve the global economy, businesses must and will adapt, therefore products and services must also evolve and reinvent themselves for this new environment. The emotional rollercoaster that many families are currently experiencing will certainly influence their behaviour, and understanding this may offer a valuable insights into potential long-term changes in habits and attitudes that will provide innovation opportunities in the future.

Our broad tool-kit and research expertise has developed over the last ten years to include both physical and remote insights capture and validation methods.  The challenge is knowing the right tools to use and having the experience to deploy them to maximise results. No one tool is perfect for every task because the research objectives and budgets can vary significantly, but the starting point is that there is much to be gained, and little to be lost, by a learning engagement with your future potential customers.

As long as travelling to users’ houses is prohibited by the need for social distancing, traditional ethnography is impractical. However, online ethnography can go some way to replace it. Users can self-facilitate their interview, creating a series of short recordings on their smartphones across a series of scenarios which have been pre-defined by the moderator. This enables researchers to gain a valuable visual, narrated snapshot of respondents’ lifestyle, behaviour, shopping environments and product usage.

Today, it is estimated 3.5 billion people around the world have a Smart Phone1. So these digital methodologies can access populations and user groups with greater ease and speed than face-to-face methods including ‘hard to reach’ populations in a way that was not previously possible. Furthermore, remote research allows the moderator and the observers to gather the insights captured within the participant’s natural environment; allowing the participant to be more relaxed and more instinctive behaviour to be observed, with sessions scheduled around the participants’ daily routine. At a practical level this can enable recruitment of wide diversity, both by geography and consumer segments, typically at a lower cost that physical field observations.

Our research and insights team is made up of a variety of subject matter expert backgrounds, including psychology and anthropology, science, and design. The objective of our work, whether for consumer or healthcare markets is always to creater a better, and more intuitive experience. Human Factors and Usability trials are another research activity that has been impacted by COVID-19, and this service has also benefitted from a creative approach and constantly expanding tool-kit to ensure client’s critical path healthcare development programmes remain on course as we switch to remote methods.

How we run online remote usability testing

There are three key questions we ask partipants which measure product desirability and usability:

“Does it fit in with the way I do things?”

One way we explore this is by gaining feedback on product workflow using storyboards or demonstration videos and animations which can be shared online. These tools are great for communicating assumptions and quickly learning whether they resonate with users and reflect how they do things. Study material can be shared prior to the session or presented to the participant during it.

“Can I understand how to use it?”

Gaining feedback on visual design and the hierarchy of information helps to validate mental models embodied in the design. This can be done using images, walkthroughs and interaction simulations to explore specific user interface features, i.e., interpretation, legibility, navigation, etc.

Each step of the user experience can be explored with the participant to determine their understanding of the device state and asked what they would do next.

“Am I able to physically use it?”

We can obtain richer feedback on physical interactions by posting test packs to the study participants. These might include, for example, handling models or low-fidelity prototypes, and briefing materials, which can be used in a range of ways – both moderated and unmoderated, depending on objectives.

3D printing is a great tool for this. We can print and finish a ‘looks-like’ model, and a 3D-printed headset allows them to video the encounter with their phone. We have also, as a matter of course, been including a personal hygiene pack and instructional information on measures to minimise virus contamination risks.

Participants are encouraged to ‘think out loud’ and walk through the overall experience with the device. This footage is then used by the research team to ask follow-up questions via video calls, to better understand use challenges or frustrations.

Heuristic analysis

Some tools avoid the need for usability testing with real users at all. One is heuristic analysis; an evaluation method which draws upon the collective knowledge and experience of a team of expert interaction designers and usability engineers to evaluate a device or concept against a set of pre-agreed criteria. This can also be expanded to consider capability loss or through exercises such as “walk-in-my-shoes” or using capability loss simulations. It provides a powerful empathetic solution when the target users are hard-to-reach, rare patient groups or are part of a niche consumer population.

Data logging

An approach we have pioneered at CDP is the use of data loggers hidden in prototype products, a service we call diialog. This allows a subject to receive a prototype device or packaging sample and naturally engage with it in their day to day routine in trials lasting up to a month, when it is eventually returned. At this point we download the stored data and analyse it to understand how the subject actually used the product.

This digital technology has been deployed successfully on research devices ranging from drug delivery systems to vacuum cleaners, both in concert with, and without a written diary.

As experienced researchers, we all know that there is no perfect single test method – but when faced with very diverse innovation challenges, the starting point is always collaborating closely with our clients to fully understand their objectives, and a broad and evolving toolkit to call upon! As an end-to-end innovation partner, we understand the importance of asking the right questions in order to uncover the right evidence to craft the right solution that is both desirable and safe for the user.

With a return to widespread physical in-home research some way off, you may be wondering how you are going to maintain your NPD critical path; whether you are in the early ‘explore’ phase of an innovation programme, or needing a decisive validation test result, if this feels like your current situation we would warmly encourage you to get in touch for a chat about your current research challenges, and some of the latest options that may be open to you.


1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/330695/number-of-smartphone-users-worldwide/

Find the authors on LinkedIn:

Ben Kelsey

Design and Insight Consultant

Andres Barrera

Usability Engineer