Testing: A Guide to the 5th Stage of Design Thinking

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
May 18, 2023
Two women interviewing a man holding a phone
Testing: A Guide to the 5th Stage of Design Thinking
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
May 18, 2023

You wouldn’t purchase a car without test-driving it first — even if you know exactly what car you want. The same is true for design thinking. To understand usability, you’ve got to test your design and get end-user feedback before you shift the project into high gear (see what we did there?).

As an approach to problem-solving, design thinking balances real human needs with the development limitations of modern technology. It puts the focus on empathizing with your audience to define pain points and brainstorm solutions.

Since consumer needs remain a central focus throughout every phase of design thinking, it’s easy to assume that the concept you come up with will be a guaranteed success. But that isn’t always the case, especially since consumer needs are always changing and you still have to manage other competing priorities from stakeholders.

In this deep-dive on the testing stage of design thinking, we’ll cover:

  • The importance of the testing stage
  • A walkthrough on how to conduct testing
  • 5 tips to get the most out of the testing phase
  • Templates to get real-time or asynchronous feedback on solutions

The importance of testing in design thinking

The testing stage of the design thinking process helps product, design, and development teams evaluate their concepts and prototypes for a solution. It’s an experimental — and often repeated — stage that creates opportunities to see how customers interact with solutions in real life. That way, you know if products fit customer needs or solve real problems — before you invest further.

Remember: Design thinking is an iterative process. You may find your team conducting several iterations of testing.

Testing usually comes near the end of the design thinking process, after a concept or prototype has been developed. But even if you’re confident you know what your customers want, the end product will still be based on your presumptions. And that means there’s no way to know for sure how your target audience will respond until you show them what you’ve come up with.

Take Dove as an example. The hygiene brand built its image around inclusivity and body positivity. So, when it redesigned packaging to reflect different body shapes, Dove assumed its customers would be excited to see their figures represented on the shelf. 

Instead, Dove faced backlash for comparing women’s bodies to plastic bottles, and the brand was forced to invest in damage control. This is a good example of a fundamental misalignment between user needs and the proposed solution.

Related: 4 pitfalls to avoid in the design thinking process

Testing throughout the design process (instead of after a hefty investment) will inform every stage of design thinking and provide continuous insights that help your team make better decisions.

During the testing phase, you show customers concept designs or offer access to a functional prototype. It’s the first opportunity for someone outside of the development team to offer unbiased feedback — and it helps assess product:

  • Desirability. The solution you come up with needs to be something consumers really want, not just something you think would be cool to offer. 
  • Viability. A niche audience with an interest in your concept won’t support a successful business, so you need to ensure there’s a market (but not one that’s oversaturated with competition).
  • Feasibility. Product concepts will only work if you have all of the resources you need for development and the current technology actually exists.
  • Ease of use. When testers interact with prototypes, it’s easy to identify the challenges they face and brainstorm solutions that improve the user experience.

For example, L’Occitane used testing to assess its in-store soap refill station. It rolled out the concept to a few of its brick-and-mortar stores in 2020 to gauge customer interest, see if shoppers understood how to use the station, and see how profitable the idea really was. And it’s clear the usability test was successful because L’Occitane launched the sustainable soap concept at an international level in 2021. L’Occitane demonstrates how testing solutions with the end-users in mind can lead to better outcomes.

Pro-tip: Map out your assumptions to improve the feasibility, viability, and desirability of your solutions.

How to conduct testing

The sooner and more often you test solutions that address your initial problem statement, the more likely your final product is to succeed. To complete the testing stage, you need to design your test parameters, then plan user interactions, and finally execute your testing plan.

Define test parameters

Because of the work completed in the previous stages of design thinking, you’ll already have an idea of who your end users are — this is who should participate in testing. 

Next, specify what you want to test. At the concept stage, that might mean presenting product designs and polling your audience. But if you already have a prototype, you’ll want to run more targeted tests, like tracking the number of support tickets submitted by an app’s beta users.

For example, when LEGO decided it was done targeting only boys with its products, it wanted to expand its offerings with a new product line targeted to girls aged 5 and up. That meant designing and testing various characters before deciding which to include in the final product line. The company’s design thinkers even identified five “main characters.”

Plan user interactions

When you converge with your team and stakeholders to start the testing process, you’ll need a plan for segmenting, notifying, and gathering participants. For some design teams, this is as easy as setting up a sign-up form online. Your goal, however is to get as close to real users as possible to test the solution.

Pro-tip: To better understand how users will encounter and engage with your solution, try creating a customer journey map.

Execute your testing plan

Once you’ve created a plan for what (and how) you’ll test, assign responsibilities to internal stakeholders to ensure the tests are conducted efficiently. Roles you might consider include:

  • A project manager to ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities
  • A facilitator to administer tests and offer context for test takers
  • An analyst role to  understand the testing goals and can create a report explaining the test results

Once roles are assigned, establish a timeframe for when the test sessions will take place. Ensure everyone is aware of what tasks they need to complete and their deadlines — then roll out testing.

5 tips to improve testing and user research

The key to effective user testing is honest and unbiased feedback. Following the tips we’ve outlined below will help you avoid common missteps that could taint the test results, like asking leading questions or ignoring negative feedback.

1. Show, don’t tell

It’s important to provide context for test participants so they understand what the product is and how to use it. But be careful to avoid over-explaining, and don’t talk about what you’re hoping to learn from the test. This kind of information could influence how test participants interact with the product and, consequently, the test results.

One way to approach this (and still get the targeted information you need) is with low-fidelity prototypes like A/B testing mockups, two web page wireframes with different color schemes. That way, test takers can compare different potential solutions and offer feedback on the differences they see, rather than relying on facilitators to give them guidance on what kind of feedback they’re looking for.

2. Engage test group participants

Think-aloud testing encourages participants to verbalize their thoughts continuously while they interact with a product. It allows you to collect real-time feedback and makes it easier to identify pain points as they arise. And according to the Luma Institute, this kind of testing can help uncover 80% of design flaws.

Get started for free with the Think-Aloud Testing template.

Talking to participants is easy enough when you conduct in-person tests. But for remote testing, test facilitators should use a digital solution that supports virtual interactions.

3. Be an unbiased observer

Watching participants interact with a prototype in real time helps you understand how the average consumer will experience the product once it launches. But this is true only if the facilitator remains unbiased and is careful to limit how they influence testers. Be sure to replicate the environment an end-user will be in if the solution were to be rolled out already.

4. Schedule a follow-up

After you’ve collected feedback, you’ll go back to the definition and ideation phases to make improvements based on what you learned from testing. 

But once you’ve made revisions, it’s a good idea to test the new prototype to ensure the changes you made actually improve the product. Establishing a follow-up test or saving prior participant’s’ contact information means you won’t have to start from scratch every time you want to conduct a new round of testing. In this next iteration,  a high-fidelity prototype may be better to test with users to understand how the changes affect the user’s experience.

5. Lead with empathy

A critical element of effective design thinking and human-centered design is empathy for the people experiencing the core problem you’re trying to solve. When you empathize with your customer, you gain a deeper understanding of the core user’s problem and how it affects them.

Remember, test participants are always right. The purpose of the testing phase is to check your work to make sure all of the ideation, design, and prototyping you went through will lead to a successful product launch. But if you’re defensive about the product, try to hide potential pitfalls, or ignore criticism from participants, you won’t get an accurate picture of the real customer experience. And your product could fail.

To get the most out of testing, work to empathize with participants during the process. As they verbalize their experience, ask follow-up questions to dig deeper and encourage them to elaborate so that you truly understand their pain points and can work to address them in the next prototype.

Use our think-aloud test template to guide you through testing

Ensuring test participants feel comfortable enough to talk freely and honestly about their experience requires careful test planning and empathetic moderation. Digital whiteboard and collaboration platforms like Mural help teams plan and run tests by offering a framework that makes it easy to set goals and offering talking points to guide test moderation.

Get started with the Think-aloud Testing template from Mural to kick off the testing phase of your next design thinking process.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.