You Should Always Test with Real Users

But sometimes we don't get access to real users

It is a widely accepted maxim—you should always test with real users. It makes perfect sense. Feedback is more valuable if it comes directly from the source. Of course it is. And then we can make the application better based on that feedback...from real users! It's perfect!

But what happens when you don't have access to real users?

Most marketers are not building applications for large, generic audiences upon which so many user testing articles are based. We are often developing applications for highly specific audiences for highly specific business tasks.

So what should we do when we can't follow the nice, tidy path outlined by so many user testing pontificators?

Based on my experiences building applications for highly specific audiences, I have learned some very important things that have helped me do my job better in the absences of real user testing.

  1. Build for flexibility. You won't get real user feedback until you deploy the application. With that in mind, it is very important to have a foundation that you can adjust without disrupting everything the user has already learned. If the foundation is flexible, it's much easier to implement improvements efficiently and without being disruptive.
  2. Abandon your ego. The application is not about you. It is about the users. Your decisions should have nothing to do with you and everything to do with the users. If you obstruct refinements because they are counter to your assumptions, you are doing a tremendous disservice to the users because of your ego.
  3. Get to know your users. I build applications for a very small user group. Their job is extremely specialized. It is really, really difficult for me to relate to their challenges, which means my assumptions have greater exposure to flaws and biases than usual. Once I started hanging out with some of those guys, it completely changed everything for me. My assumptions became, at the very least, a lot more informed. 

Ultimately, it's impossible to develop a step-by-step playbook for developing applications. Every project requires a different approach that should be dictated by its objectives. Testing with real users is ideal but when we don't have access to those users, it is critical to put yourself in a position to contribute positively to the project on an ongoing basis, especially in the absence of perfect information. Like testing with real users.