User testing? You're saying it wrong

September 1, 2022
Chloe Johnston

One of my favourite books this year is The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. It’s about the making of the Oxford Dictionary — the history of words, how culture shapes language and vice versa. 

It got me thinking about the words we use to describe what we do. Words like product, experience and interface. How did these words come about? Do they make sense to people outside our industry? What’s it like being on the receiving end? 

There are two words I have a bugbear with: user and testing. Ironically I do a lot of ‘user testing’. But I actively avoid using it in my design work and writing. I’ve done some digging to explore the meaning behind these two words, how they might make people feel and what we can say instead.

Let’s start with user

What it actually means

The Oxford Dictionary defines a user as: A person or thing that uses something.

This is what I expected. The dictionary examples feel familiar too. I’ve heard people say something along these lines: 

  • The average user spends 40 minutes a day on unnecessary email.
  • We're always working to improve the user experience.
  • We're expecting the user base to expand significantly.

What stands out to me in that definition is a ‘person or thing’. Thing feels prickly to me. It’s very ‘other’ and dehumanises the people you’re designing for. Even the examples make me uncomfortable. 

User lacks empathy

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of myself as a user of email. When we say ‘user’, it’s easy to lose the connection with the people we’re designing for. There’s so much nuance about who they are and what they need that’s missing for me. Using language that aligns with how people see themselves and the world builds empathy.

What to say instead

Recently, Octave partnered with a Māori-led organisation on a project for a large government agency. The brief was to identify ways to improve their digital products for Māori. Our intention was to build a relationship for the client to carry forward, which started with our language. We ran workshops across the motu and even internally we called people ‘guests’ rather than users. It was a very simple adjustment that changed the tone and reminded us of our intention. 

And now onto testing

What it actually means

The Oxford Dictionary defines testing as:

An examination of somebody’s knowledge or ability, consisting of questions for them to answer or activities for them to perform.

‘Examination’. That feels loaded. So do these dictionary examples: 

  • Students take standardised tests in English and maths.
  • The local elections will be a good test of the government's popularity.
  • The results of laboratory tests.

It’s a good reminder that, while we know we’re ‘testing’ our thinking, the people we’re speaking with bring all sorts of experiences when they hear that word. 

Calling it a test makes it a test

Let’s pause for a second and think about this… imagine your friend has roped you into doing some research for her work. You receive an email about a meeting called ‘Jigsaw user testing’. You’re thinking, hold on, I don’t even use this thing or know what it is, and I’m being tested on it? I don’t want to get it wrong…

When I’m speaking with someone, I don’t want them to filter their answers trying to get it ‘right’. The more honest they are, the more useful it is.

What to say instead

Framing your testing as a ‘demo’ or ‘feedback session’ will help people feel comfortable and empowered.  The intention is to make it clear that you’re not evaluating how well they perform a task — you’re getting feedback on your own ideas and thinking.

Stay true to your intention

There are some easy wins when it comes to language that will help people feel comfortable and empowered to tell you what they really think. Words that are relatable and respectful. The Dictionary of Lost Words reminded me that words are powerful. Let’s use them with intention.