Early Stage Research Is More Than Just Usability: How Concept Testing Can Help

Posted by AnswerLab Research on Feb 2, 2023

Many product teams rely on usability testing as the first place to start when researching a new product or feature they’re dreaming up. It’s easy to default to usability when testing something new to discover what users think in detail, but it’s not always the right method. Often, it's just as valuable to take a step back and begin testing even earlier. Many of our clients don’t feel ready to conduct user research until they have a working prototype. Or, in preparation for initial testing, they whip up a prototype quickly to show participants the full experience. But you don’t need a prototype to get in-depth insights!

Let’s say you have an idea for a new feature. Before you commit development time to building out a fully fledged prototype, try concept testing. You can test screenshots, sketches, storyboards, video walkthroughs, or even plain old ideas to get user feedback on the concepts themselves before you take yourself too far down the path of designing a prototype. What if your idea is confusing to users, but you don’t get feedback until you’ve already designed a prototype? Chances are that prototype won’t meet user needs, and you’ll have spent time and effort only to discover you’re usability testing the wrong thing. And then, you have to go back to the drawing board. One of the easiest ways to make your design process more efficient is to test and validate your ideas before you start working on them.

So, when should you use concept testing instead of usability testing?

First, and most importantly, you have to consider the goals of the research. Sometimes we see clients defaulting to usability for a wide variety of goals and objectives, even when it’s not the right method. If the goals of the research are to understand a user’s ability to navigate your product, then by all means, take the usability approach. But, if the goals aren’t usability based and you’re looking for broader feedback about your product’s role in a user’s everyday life, whether they would find it helpful, or if the idea is a good one to begin with, a prototype can muddy the waters of what you’re trying to learn. 

Let’s go back to basics. What is usability testing?

Usability testing is about understanding the user's ability to navigate a site or app, where they’re struggling, any sticking points, and what they’re looking for. Once you develop a prototype of your product, having users actually play around with it can help determine if it’s intuitive and easy to use. This is the point in your design process where you dive into the details to discover how users navigate your product.

Usability testing can help you answer questions, including:

  1. Is this intuitive? Does it feel intuitive when they navigate? Is it confusing?
  2. Is it user-friendly? Is it streamlined? Can users navigate from one place to another without excessive clicking?
  3. Is the amount of information given appropriate? 
  4. Is the structure too complicated and overwhelming?

What about concept testing?

Concept testing, on the other hand, can be helpful when you’re forming an idea and want to understand if it’s something users actually want! If you have an idea for an app or a new feature that’s attempting to meet a user need or solve a major pain point, concept testing can help you understand if it’s even an idea people will respond to, if it’s something they’re interested in, and if it actually solves the problem you’re trying to tackle. Concept testing can also reveal unforeseen issues about the idea you might need to know prior to building out a prototype.

Concept testing can help you answer questions, including:

  1. Is this idea appealing? Do people even like the idea of this?
  2. Do the iconography and visuals make sense? Do they represent what users expect them to represent?
  3. Is this too cheesy? Is it off-putting?
  4. Does it resonate with them? Does it feel like it’s built with user needs in mind? 
  5. Does the language make sense? 

While many hesitate to test without a fully functioning prototype, there’s a real benefit to testing ideas, screenshots, video walkthroughs, etc. to get feedback and validate your approach before you go too far down a particular path. Clients have come to us with fully developed prototypes to test in beta only to learn that participants want different functionality, sending them right back to the drawing board.

An important benefit of using early stage stimuli is that users understand it’s an early-stage design and are more likely to provide honest feedback that could redirect the concept, instead of feedback that improves the concept already designed. By not showing them a prototype, you’re opening the door to broader, more helpful ideas on how you might solve their needs.

Here are a few ways concept testing can provide value:

Testing potential product names

Getting directional feedback on potential names for a product or feature is a perfect fit for concept testing. If you’ve got a list of possible names, concept testing can help you filter out the losers, and narrow your list down to a couple options users really resonate with. Do these names make sense? Are they representative of the experience? Are they catchy and easy to remember? Ultimately, if you have your narrowed down list early enough, you can then test the finalists quantitatively if you’re looking to get some statistical validity as well before making your final decision. 

Understanding a navigation menu

We often think usability testing is the best for researching navigation, but before you build a fully functioning menu for users to interact with in research sessions, mock it up and see what users really think! What do each of the buttons mean? Do they understand the iconography we have in place? This higher level feedback may surface larger issues that can redirect how you’re thinking about your design.

Testing ideas and content verbally

Concept testing doesn’t necessarily have to be visual. You can also test ideas by describing an experience and getting blue sky feedback on these concepts. Another way to think about this is testing language, phrases, and content by asking if something makes sense, if a description is clear and helpful, or if this is what they expect and want from the experience. This is a great way for marketers to determine if they’re speaking in the voice of the user and eliminating any jargon users may not understand. At this stage, testing copy can also help with ensuring experiences are inclusive and that none of the wording excludes or isolates particular populations or minority segments.

Discovering visual preference with video walkthroughs

Let’s say you’re trying to understand a visual experience for the user, but not the functionality. Here, we would recommend using screenshots or video walkthroughs to get feedback before building it out. For example, if you’re trying to understand if there’s too much clutter on the screen or if pop-ups are too distracting, use videos, sketches, and screenshots to test visual preference without having to put it on a device. 

This also works with lead in screens or directive text that pops up to explain new features. Before building them into the prototype itself, talk to users about whether the text makes sense, if the boxes are popping up at the right time and in the right place, or if they’re confusing or unnecessary. As an additional perk, video walkthroughs can be great backups for when a prototype fails in a future session further down the line!

Storyboarding the user’s experience

Building a storyboard that communicates a user’s interaction with your product can help your participants visually walk through their experience without actually using it. While storyboards are often used to build team alignment internally and communicate insights after the research, we find they’re helpful in this context as well. They’re typically informal and easy-to-understand, but they illustrate how the user would interact with your product for a piece of the user journey.

If the goals of the research are to understand how a user would engage with your product in context, this is a great methodology to explore. During concept testing, storyboards give the participant context and allow them to see themselves in the experience in a visual way. This often surfaces more conceptual insights on how your product could approach solving their needs in context.

Read more about how you might apply this methodology in practice or contact us to chat about how concept testing can help you develop your early stage research practice.

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AnswerLab Research

The AnswerLab research team collaborates on articles to bring you the latest UX trends and best practices.

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