Often user experience projects are kicked off by a business stakeholder asking for a new website, digital tool, or feature set with the aim to meet a business goal or advance a product in the market.
And while customer insights may accompany the ask, seldom do user experience practitioners begin a new project with a firm understanding of how or why a given solution meets user needs.
This may lead to wasted time and effort designing and developing an experience that doesn’t quite fit into the lives of your customers, nor achieve the defined business goals.
Incorporating concept testing into your user-centered design process will allow you to expose target users to multiple design concepts very early in the process, thereby confirming the value of the experience and your design direction before a lot of effort has been invested.
What is Concept Testing?
A mainstay of market research, concept testing refers to a collection of methodologies that are designed to predict the viability of a product in the marketplace.
Most often performed as a quantitative survey, a traditional concept test often presents an advertising mockup or other model of a product concept to target customers and asks them to evaluate the concept on a number of measures, but most commonly, price.
Pricing and market forces are often not the domain of the user experience practitioner, but the approach of asking customers early on what value they perceive from a product or experience can save time and effort on churn, and answer some questions that may not otherwise be addressed until much later in the design process.
Adjusting the concept testing methodology to a qualitative interview format can uncover contextual and behavioral insights along with preference between a number of concepts, providing designers twice the benefit for a single research activity.
How to Conduct a Qualitative Concept Test
Explore More Than One Concept
A common mistake that designers make is moving forward with the first design concept that comes to mind, which often makes finding the best solution more difficult. The longer you spend with a single idea, concept, or design direction, the harder it is to move away from it due to attachment to our own ideas.
Spending time exploring multiple design concepts prevents you from becoming too attached to any one idea, and more likely to uncover unique iterations that draw on the strengths of multiple concepts.
Create a Model for Each Concept
In order to get valuable feedback on your concepts, you must create a representation of each one to share with your target customers or users. This need not be a high fidelity prototype—a simple sketch, storyboard, or wireframe will do.
As long as your model represents your concept in a simple manner that you can describe, it will serve as stimuli to prompt discussion with users to answer your research questions.
While there is no limit to how many concepts you can explore, narrow down the concepts you will expose to users to your three best designs–this will allow you to uncover a lot of valuable insights without overwhelming users with too many variations.
Identify Your Research Questions and Create a Test Plan
Nearly every user experience project begins with unanswered questions about users, their behaviors, or their context of use for a given product or experience. Concept testing is a quick way to explore some–if not all–of those unanswered questions with target customers.
Prepare for your concept tests by outlining your high priority questions, as well as a few questions that relate to each concept.
For example, if I am designing a new media player, I may have questions about:
- How customers are using their current media player
- What feature they utilize the most, or
- What hacks they are using to get around limitations of the experience
For each concept, I may want to know if users can easily understand the concept’s structure, affordances, and design elements. Reword each of your questions into an open-ended, non-leading format (e.g. “Tell me about how you listen to podcasts”), and structure as an interview.
Begin with your broadest questions, narrowing in to your specific area of interest, and ending with a review of each concept and a few questions to uncover how they are perceived by the user (e.g. “What do you think you can do on this screen?”).
For best results, keep your test under one hour for each participant. Once you have a draft of your questions, run a pilot test with a friend or colleague to ensure that you can cover all of your questions within a reasonable time frame and that you’re uncovering the data you need.
Recruit Target Customers and Conduct Your Test
As with any user research, identify the audience that best represents the people who will be using your product or experience in the marketplace. This ensures you optimize your design based on what your customers need–not someone else’s.
Because the structure of a concept test is an interview format supported by low-fidelity, static mockups or models, you don’t need a lot of space.
You could even conduct concept tests remotely using a program like Google Hangouts or Skype. Recruit 5-6 people who meet the requirements for your target audience and record your tests or take notes as you go.
Analyze Results to Narrow Down Concepts
Since qualitative concept testing allows you to ask broad questions and review multiple concepts with users, you’ll end up with a lot of data to inform your project.
In addition to having a better understanding of how your product or experience can address the needs of your customer, you should have a better idea of what concept (or what parts of each concept) align with those needs.
This understanding will allow you to narrow in on a single concept or iterate to create a new concept that’s a better fit.