User testing is an essential tool for developers to understand how users respond to and interact with their product. Watching a user interact with a product in development can provide vital insights that a survey, interview, or analytics just can’t provide. User testing does not require a big budget or a big team. Even if you can’t do user testing perfectly, doing whatever version of user testing is possible for you, you will be able to learn a lot.

When it comes to user testing, I have been on both sides of the table. I have run dozens of user testing sessions for the language learning game we are developing. Out of a desire to truly understand our testers, I have also participated as a product tester for a few different companies. These are my top three recommendations on how to run better user tests based on those experiences:

1) Find the language that encourages your tester to give you constructive feedback. While the majority of a user testing session should be focused on observation, getting the user to open up and verbalize what they don’t understand and what they don’t like is essential. Testers, however, sensing how much work you have put into your product, often don’t want to say negative things to you. Open your testing session by explaining how much their feedback will help your development because you know there are still things wrong with your product. Try providing an anecdote for when someone’s constructive feedback resulted in a positive change to your product.

2) Make the experience less intense for the tester. Keeping them at ease will allow you to build better rapport and get feedback out of them in a more realistic manner. This is a user test, not a stress test! I was a tester with one company that had three people hovered over me using a mobile device. Keep the number of observers to a minimum. I recognize that having others in the team see the test can be incredibly important. Consider using a video camera to record the session. As a tester, my best experience was an entirely recorded session. I felt the most relaxed and confident in the feedback I was providing. Of course that limits the follow up questions to whatever you decided in advance so find a happy medium.

Along the same lines, I had a conversation with someone recently who stated she hates user tests because as a tech person, she feels she should be able to figure out how to use the product and is then stressed when she can’t. Make sure to communicate to your testers that if they have trouble figuring out your product that it is your fault as the developer, not theirs! Let’s help people love the user testing experience so that we have a robust pool of people excited to test products.

3) Remember to stay focused on the observation component and not get too lost in follow up questions. While some pointed follow up questions can be helpful, remember, users don’t necessarily know what they want. Asking a question such as “If we did x, would you like the experience better?” will get you nowhere. If you think x change might help, prototype it and test it. An example of a great follow up question, however, is “what did you find confusing about x?”. I have been a tester when the session should have been ended. Those running the test, however, felt they needed to use the entire allotted time and so they kept asking me tons of questions that I could do nothing but take wild stabs at. This obviously will result in confusion.

User tests are vital to developing a great product. I hope these tips can help you run better user testing sessions. I am sure there are tons more great ideas out there. What else have you found helpful?