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The Coffee Shop User Testing Lab

May 22, 2013

In this article I’ll explain a simple, fast way to perform user testing, even with no budget or time. A lot of people don’t immediately see the value in doing user experience testing, partly because it has the perception of being an expensive hassle or just a waste of time. A client recently told me, “We’re already behind on this project and need get right to the mock-ups”

However, user experience testing doesn’t have to be time consuming. In fact, some very simple testing can be done in one afternoon with no advance notice and very inexpensively. How? I call this the “Coffee Shop Lab” – It’s simple: pick a public place where people hang out (like a local coffee shop), approach complete strangers and offer to buy their coffee if they’ll spend a few minutes giving feedback on your project. Most people will say yes and in one afternoon you can do half a dozen or more interviews with pretty valuable feedback.

Is it scientific, controlled, and extensive? No, but it works very well and you’ll be surprised by how valuable the results can be. Doing any amount of user research is useful and it’s better than doing none at all. But before you head out the door, here are a few tips:

  • Go to a place where people are hanging out, not a place where people are in a hurry on their lunch break.
  • Friends or groups are more likely to participate than individuals. Maybe they don’t want to look rude in front of their friends.
  • Let the manager know beforehand and tip the servers, if allowed. You’ll be soliciting his or her customers, so be respectful.
  • Avoid chain & franchise stores. Local mom-and-pops are more likely to agree. Offer to go through the same interview with a manager or employee first so they know what you’re doing. That’s one bonus user test too.
  • Make your pitch short and to the point. Write it down and memorize it. “I have a project I need feedback on. Can I buy you a drink if you’ll spend a few minutes looking at it with me?” Some people like the idea of getting to comment on new technology, especially mobile apps. But avoid explaining too much about your project until after the interview is done.
  • Don’t obsess over the kinds of people to ask and whether or not they’re your target user. At the same time, don’t ask a grandma who might struggle to use most websites. You’re going for ‘general population’ types that would be familiar with basic web site and mobile app experiences.

As for the interviews, prepare in advance no more than three tasks for the user to perform. They should be simple and the most common use cases for your app. For example, “Go ahead and create a new account” or “Please login using this username and password” and then “Download the most recent widget” or “If you came to this site looking for a widget, what would do first?”

The purpose is not to start a conversation about “how good it is”; don’t ask what they think. This is not about their personal preference, but usability. Instead, focus on how quickly and easily they’re able to complete the tasks. Can they perform the tasks with little instruction? Is it immediately clear to them what they need to do? If you get questions, that’s a good sign that your user experience might need to be simplified.

This method for quick and cheap UX testing isn’t the most elegant, but it’s far better than doing nothing at all. It’s an informal way to find out how usable your site or app is. And always remember: user testing only informs decisions; it does not decide for you. If all goes well, you’ll have some confidence knowing the thing you’ve designed is pretty good. If there are questions or hesitation, it’s an opportunity to find other solutions to make the user experience more intuitive.