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Testing the sketch on the napkin

During the early planning stages of any project, you’re likely to have some rough sketches or concept drawings, what I usually refer to as the “sketch on a napkin.” (It may even literally be a sketch on a napkin or a placemat.) For a Web site, you might have a sketch of a new Home page or a product page, for instance.

It’s always worth testing the sketch on the napkin.

HOW YOU TEST IT:

Napkin tests aren’t full tests; they’re like the Home page tour you saw me do in the demo test (see page 21). Each one takes less than five minutes. You can do napkin tests using friends, neighbors, or anyone you run into, or you can do them where your actual users gather, like a trade show or a user group meeting.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Approach almost anyone.
  2. Say, “Can you do me a favor? Take a look at this?”
  3. Hand them the napkin. (It could be a nice neat drawing, or it could actually be a sketch on a napkin.)
  4. Say, “Can you tell me what you make of this? What do you think this is supposed to be?”

    Note that you’re not asking for their opinion (“Do you like this?”) or their feedback (“What do you think of this?”). You’re asking them to look at the sketch and try to figure out what the thing is.

  5. Listen carefully. They’ll probably say something like “Well, it looks like a Home page for a site, and it looks like you’re trying to sell ___. And these things over here are your featured products. And it says ‘Store’ up here, so I guess I could order things online. I’m not sure what this category ‘Incentives’ means, though.”

    If you want, you can ask a few probing questions, like “What do you think ‘Incentives’ might mean?”

If what they describe is what you were aiming for, get a bigger napkin and keep drawing. Usually, though, there will be something about the sketch that doesn’t make sense to them, or something that they interpret very differently from what you expect, and you’ve learned something important without building anything—something you can now fix before you go any further.

WHAT YOU GET OUT OF IT:

You’ll learn whether your concept is easy to understand—whether people “get it.” They’ll either confirm that you’re on the right track or point out basic problems that you can then deal with early in the process.

I’ll give you a personal example. For a long time (several years, actually) I wanted to call this book Krug’s Field Guide to Users. The whole design of the book was going to be like a bird watching book: the same size and shape, and the same look and feel.

I thought it was a great idea. No, that’s not quite right: I thought it was a fabulous idea. I loved it. Just thinking about it made me happy. I kept a rough version of the cover on the wall near my desk for inspiration.1

Then I did a foolish thing: I followed my own advice and tested it. The results were unanimous:

  • Everybody I showed it to “got it” that it was supposed to be like a bird watching book. They all thought that it was a “neat” idea.
  • They all thought that it would be a book about all the different kinds of Web users. When I told them that it would actually be about usability testing, they all went, “Oh....” They weren’t upset that I was writing a book about testing. It just wasn’t what the cover would have led to them to expect.

I couldn’t see it because I was too close to it. I knew how it was supposed to work.

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