The one thing you can’t fake in rapid prototyping: motivation

Rapid prototyping on real users is an incredibly effective way to search solution space for product configurations that will actually resonate with users. But there’s one critical mistake that I see rookie user testers making on the regular. If you do this, your test is bunk, and if you believe the bunk results of your bunk test, your product might be bunk too.

In a rapid prototyping session, you make a very rough approximation of the product use scenario. You can ask a user to fake lots of things. Pretend this piece of paper is an app on your phone. Pretend you’re on the bus. Pretend I’m not here. Pretend you’re 16 years old. Pretend you’re a mother. It’s actually fine to ask a user to pretend all of those things, as long as you help the user get into the state of mind that you’re requesting.

But there’s one thing you cannot ask the user to fake: motivation. The moment you ask a user to pretend that he’s interested, or pretend that he wants some outcome that your product is trying to deliver, the test is a charade. The user is now faking the very thing you’re here to test.

Usually it goes like this:

Researcher: What would you do on this screen?

User: I’d probably quit because I’m bored.

Researcher: …okay. Pretend you clicked “Next” and you saw this next screen. What would you do here?

User: Um…. I guess I’d click Sign Up?

No! Bullshit! The key question is whether the user cares. As soon as you ask him to fake it, you might as well just tell him to go home, because you can sit in your armchair and speculate about what he would do just as well as he can. You are no longer learning about the critical question: what do people care about? What gets them excited?

So, never ask users to pretend about motivation.

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