Why you should try UserTesting.com

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Photo by Zen Sutherland

If you're building a website or app you need to be using UserTesting.com, a service that crowd-sources QA. I don't say that about many services, and I have no connection with the company (a co-worker actually discovered them) but they've transformed how we do testing. We used to have to stalk coffee shops and pester friends-of-friends to find people who'd never seen Jetpac before and were willing to spend half an hour of their life being recorded while they checked it out. It meant the whole process took a lot of valuable time, so we'd only do it a few times a month. This made life tough for the engineering team as the app grew more complex. We have unit tests, automated Selenium tests, and QA internally, but because we're so dependent on data caching and crunching, a lot of things only go wrong when a completely new user first logs into the system.

These are the steps to getting a test running:

 - Specify what kind of users you need. In our case we look for people between 15 and 40 years old, with over 100 friends on Facebook, who've never used Jetpac before, and who have an iPad with iOS 5 or greater.

– Write a list of tasks you want them to perform. For us, this is simply opening up the app, signing in with Facebook, and using various features.

– Prepare a list of questions you'd like them to answer at the end. We ask for their overall rating of the app, as well as questions about how easy particular features are to find and use.

Once you've prepared those, you have a template that you can re-use repeatedly, so that new tests can be started with just a few seconds of effort. The final step is paying! It does cost $39 per user, so it's not something you want to overuse, but it's saves so much development time, it's well worth it for us.

It normally takes an hour or two for our normal three-user test batches to be completed, and at the end we're emailed links to screencasts of each tester using the app. Since we're on the iPad, the videos are taken using a webcam pointing at the device on a desk, which sounds hacky but works surprisingly well. All of the users so far have been great about giving a running commentary about what they're seeing and thinking as they go through the app, which has been invaluable as product feedback. It's actually often better than the feedback we get from being in the room with users, since they're a lot more self-conscious then!

The whole process is a pleasure, with a lot of thoughtful touches throughout the interface, like the option to play back the videos at double speed. The support staff has been very helpful too, especially Matt and Holly for offering to refund two tests when I accidentally cc-ed them on an unhappy email about the bugs we were hitting in our product.

The best thing about discovering UserTesting.com has been how it changes our development process. We can suddenly get way more information than we could before about how real users are experiencing the app in the wild. It has lowered the barrier dramatically to running full-blown user tests, which means we do a lot more of them, catch bugs faster, and can fix them more easily. I don't want to sound like too much of an informercial, but it's really been a god send to us, and I highly recommend you check them out too.

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