Summary: Through experimenting with drunk user testing, I found a unique style of feedback that shines a light on what it means to create a truly simple and usable design. And with the right approach, we can replicate that high quality of feedback with sober users. Begin creating simple designs by utilizing visual hierarchy, developing a logical flow through your site, confirming user actions, and delivering on expectations. Conduct enlightening user tests by leveraging proper segmentation and recording tangential / unsolicited feedback. Ingrain UX into your company by distributing design ownership, encouraging collaboration, and focusing on problems rather than solutions.

As UX Designers, we like to throw down knowledge in meetings, using words of wisdom like “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” But had we ever thought that, perhaps, the most logical approach would be to say…“Hold my beer”? Well, I did, and apparently I’m not alone. A couple years ago, Will Dayble published a video called The User is Drunk and it has since become a staple in the UX community. The concept, albeit rather elementary, actually makes a valid point: your site should be so simple and well-designed that a drunk guy could use it.

Naturally, as with any relatively groundbreaking concept, there will be people that take it entirely too far. In this particular case, I quickly realized that I wanted to be one of those people. That’s how I met Richard Littauer of TheUserIsDrunk.com. He’s just the type of guy that likes to drink and talk about usability. In fact, he enjoys it so much that he does it for a living (on weekends). So, I decided that the best course of action would be to use my employer’s money to have Richard perform one of his experiments on HubSpot.com. And he delivered:

All jokes aside, we actually ended up getting some really good feedback out of the video. Some of the issues had already been uncovered in previous rounds of user testing and we were already addressing them. For example, when Richard pointed out that he couldn’t really tell what HubSpot does, he was in unanimous agreement with our user base: the copy on our website was too vague. However, he also managed to bring up some points that, while arguably obvious, had never come up before. A perfect example was when he remarked, “It looks like your site is for large scale clients who are willing to spend money on buzzwords.” Wow, that one hurt. But only because, in a certain sense, we knew that Richard had just pointed to the giant elephant in the room. Our copy was completely underselling our product and simply didn’t do it justice. We had failed to discuss the true business impact that HubSpot offers and we didn’t fully convey the love that so many people have for the software.

User Testing Woes

That kind of honest feedback is rare in traditional user testing sessions, especially when they’re remote and unmoderated. This is partially because there are inherent discrepancies between what users say and what they do. To make things worse, services like UserTesting.com employ user ratings to rank their testers. The higher a user’s rating is, the more likely they are to receive testing opportunities. Each rating is determined by the client (and accompanied by written feedback) after the test is viewed.

The client can assign a star rating to each test

Now, there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with that practice. Considering how large UserTesting.com’s panel is (over one million people), it’s important for the client to be able to filter out low quality participants. However, with the rating system hanging over users’ heads, it tends to place an odd pressure on the user to tell the client what they want to hear rather than give brutally honest, yet ultimately constructive feedback.

Lovable Characteristics

So, what is it about the drunk user that we actually love? What sets them apart and allows them to supply such useful feedback? What separates their feedback from standard user testing feedback? Most importantly, do they really need to be drunk in order to supply the feedback that we’re looking for?

I would argue that everything we love about the drunk user can actually be replicated with a sober user. In the case of remote unmoderated user testing, this requires three critical components: a good research participant panel, a good user testing platform, and a good UX Designer. To further understand the responsibilities that each of these components hold, we can first take a look at what we love about drunk users (and what makes for a good user test):

  • More information. The drunk user is not afraid to do what they please and elaborate on what they’re thinking. The testing platform should not place unnecessary limitations on the user and the UX Designer should construct tasks that encourage natural behavior and open dialogue.
  • More honesty. The drunk user says exactly what needs to be said, even if it’s inconvenient. The testing platform should reward users that provide honest feedback (rather than discourage it) and the UX Designer should reinforce the importance of constructive criticism by adapting the design when necessary (and communicating their reasoning within their team).
  • Less time. The drunk user gets straight to the point. The testing platform should provide ways to quickly collect data and the UX Designer should distribute summarized, digestible versions of that data within their team.

Designing for Drunks

Now that we know why we love the drunk user, we can begin to look into ways to create truly simple designs that even a drunk could understand. Because this concept can encompass many different areas of design, I’m going to begin with the basic fundamentals and then transition into more UX-intensive concepts.

  • Don’t design in a vacuum. Don’t let your CEO, CMO, or Junior Designer dictate the design. Let your users. Create an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and test it with actual users. Ask yourself, are the users demonstrating that they even want this product? If they want it, what could be done to improve the experience? Understand that improving usability on a product that people don’t want will only make it easier for them to determine that they don’t want it (and thus leave). That’s a lose-lose. Improving usability on a product that people do want will only make it easier for them to use it the way they want to (and thus stick around). That’s a win-win. But this all must be done with an open mind, user feedback, and plenty of iteration.
  • Good design is invisible. The best user interfaces are porous, meaning that they’re so well-designed that users don’t even notice them, because they’re too busy using them (accomplishing what they want to accomplish). Do not create unnecessary visual elements that compete with each other or inhibit the user from doing what they’re trying to do. Focus on aiding the user in completing their task.
  • Simplicity does not mean “less”; it means “just enough”. Fellow HubSpot designer Dan Ritzenthaler takes a really interesting approach to simplicity, asserting that by having a single core idea, improving clarity over time, and utilizing consistency, one can create a truly simple design. What this means is that while a design should never be overcomplicated, it should also never be oversimplified. The design should provide just enough for the user to complete their goals, but not more and not less.
  • Utilize visual hierarchy. Design so that the user can tell exactly what each element does and what actions you want them to take. A great way to verify your visual hierarchy is to put your site through the drunk user test web tool (no alcohol necessary). When your site is blurred and moving, can you still make out the design? If the user were to see a blurred version of your site, would they be able to deduce what you want them to do? Understand that this does not mean that your design elements should be huge and obnoxiously colored, nor does it mean that they should be muted and indistinguishable. Obnoxious and colorful designs bleed together. Muted designs bleed together. Neither work. Shoot for something in the middle: simple, elegantly designed, and completely clear in purpose / function.

Where would you click?

Probably the sign up button

  • Organize information intuitively. Ensure that your information is organized in a way that makes sense to the user. Card sorting can be especially helpful here. If your site has to house copious amounts of information, or if it’s been a while since you’ve reviewed it’s taxonomy, you may benefit from investing some time in your site’s information architecture.
  • Develop a logical flow. Leverage user flows to determine how you expect users to move through your site and how you want them to move through your site. Optimize around these goals using clear navigation elements like CTA’s and breadcrumbs. Ensure that your users always know where they are and where they’re going.
  • Confirm user actions. Whenever your user does something, make sure that you provide them with confirmation. Whether it be a friendly message on the next page, an unintrusive modal, a subtle animation, or even a microinteraction. All of these can be used to overcome uncertainty and creatively let your user know that their action was registered.

Reddit’s /r/thebutton as a microinteraction

  • Deliver on expectations. Before a user lands on your site, they’ll have an expectation set in their head pertaining to what they think your design will look like and how it will function. This is why clearly labeled CTA’s and highly prototypical site designs always outperform their ambiguous and overcomplicated counterparts. Beyond that, as a user navigates through your site, they will expect it to behave in certain ways. Don’t mislead your users. We’ve seen this go especially wrong with design phenomenons like dark patterns. Ensure that you’re setting the right expectations and delivering every time.
  • Optimize site speed. The average user will leave a site if it does not load within 4 seconds. We especially saw the effects of this when Amazon calculated that a 1 second delay in their load time would cost them $1.6 BN in sales each year. Optimize your content and monitor your site’s speed using tools like Google Analytics and Pingdom.

Responsible User Testing

Even the most expertly-constructed designs need to be verified with users. That’s where user testing comes in (and if you do it right, the users don’t even have to be drunk). I’m going to start with some general “best practices” and then transition into more specific tactics.

  • Segment. At the most basic level, ensuring that you receive high quality feedback starts with proper segmentation. Know your personas and leverage demographic filters and screener tests to get as specific as you need to. If you’re looking to pull some great results out of a remote unmoderated user testing panel, you can even ask highly specific questions that only your audience would be able to answer or use false screeners to verify that users are being honest about their backgrounds.
  • You only need 3-5 participants. As with most qualitative testing, your best bet is going to be to run multiple small tests, rather than one large test. Jakob Neilsen concluded more than a decade ago that the best qualitative data can be pulled from 5 users per test. Any number higher than 5 would begin to produce duplicate results, and thus waste. For the highest return, conduct multiple small tests, making iterative improvements between each round of testing.

Diminishing returns for usability testing

Cost-benefits of user testing

  • Run a pilot test. Before you send your test out to all 5 users, run it with just 1 to ensure that the tasks make sense. Observe their behaviors and make adjustments as necessary (very rarely will your tasks be perfect from the start). This will ensure that the real testing round goes smoothly and you don’t waste your money and time on a bunch of users that don’t understand what they’re supposed to do. In other words, user test your user test.
  • Behavior over narration. Do your best to pay a little more attention to what users do than what they say. Often times, user behaviors directly contradict verbal claims. Many users also do not know exactly what they want or what is technologically possible within a design. Their behaviors will guide you in a more reliable direction.
  • Pair the data. Whenever you collect qualitative data, try to pair it with quantitative data and pick out areas where the results overlap. Those are most definitely the largest usability pain points. A great way to visualize qualitative data in a quantitative format is through the use of a Rainbow Spreadsheet.

The Rainbow Spreadsheet displays qualitative data in a quantitative format

  • Record tangential feedback. In the majority of the tests that you run, you’ll more than likely have a clear set of questions and objectives. However, because your test subjects are humans, they will commonly go astray and provide feedback on elements that you aren’t even testing. Some designers will ignore this information, focusing only on the goals set for the test. You never should – that feedback is golden. Even if a user comments on or interacts with an element that you’ve tested over and over again, still record the feedback and determine it’s implications.
  • Record unsolicited feedback. A primary drawback to any form of organized testing is that the user is never truly in their “natural” frame of mind. Users are commonly primed and sometimes testing in a foreign environment. However, all of these drawbacks disappear when you receive unsolicited feedback. It can manifest itself in many different ways, ranging from support tickets through real-world occurrences like desire paths. But the most important thing is that when a user volunteers feedback, you should record it.
  • Moderate if necessary. If you’re looking for an even higher quality of feedback and you’re prepared to dedicate some extra time to collecting it, then you may want to begin moderating your user tests. This will allow you to put the user back on track when they drift off course, as well as prompt the user to elaborate on certain comments or actions in-the-moment. If done right, moderated user testing can really yield some top notch results.

Creating a Culture of UX

Once you’re confident in your individual approach to user testing, you’ll want to start bringing your team on board. The absolute best products and designs come out of companies that have built a culture around user experience, where each member of the organization understands who their user is, why the design looks and functions the way that it does, and what UX does to impact the bottom-line.

  • Everyone is a UX Designer. Educate your team on what UX is and then reinforce that everyone is responsible for it. We’re all responsible for creating an end product that delights the user. This instills a sense of ownership over the product and it creates a constant stream of feedback from multiple different perspectives / areas of expertise. This helps to ensure that known issues don’t go neglected. Now, when a Support Representative notices an issue with the site, they don’t just shrug and say, “oh, that’s the UX Designer’s problem.” Instead, they take ownership and let you know about the problem so that you can fix it. Certain roles (like Developers) will even aid in fixing these problems from time-to-time. Most importantly, involving your team in the UX process creates a sense of empathy for the user and helps stakeholders to “see the bigger picture”.
  • Involve your Designers and Developers. Everyone from your Visual Designer to your Front-End Developer should be present starting with the kickoff meeting. All key stakeholders need to be involved from the beginning, even if to merely supply verbal feedback before their part begins. This reduces waste (the Developer may catch a technical issue in the design early on) and promotes innovation (the Developer may introduce new ways to improve the design). Your design process should be as collaborative as possible.
  • Fall in love with problems, not solutions. While it may be tempting to replicate your competitor’s cool new design feature or implement the latest trends on your site, you should always ensure that you understand what you’re solving for first. Don’t approach your design with a solution to a problem that you haven’t identified yet. Instead, find a problem, fall in love with it, and then find the best solution to solve for that problem.
  • Listen to sales and support calls. Remember how I talked about unsolicited feedback earlier? This is where you can find it. If you have, at minimum, 1 sales person or 1 support person in your company, you should dedicate some time every week to listen in on their calls. Even if the calls aren’t being recorded, you can still schedule some time to sit down with a rep or look over support tickets. This will help you gauge what resonates with customers and where user pain points exist.
  • Get your hands dirty. Every UX Designer should be intimately familiar with their product. If you can use the product in your daily life, do it (you’ll notice that I’m running HubSpot on this site and I use Sidekick in my personal email). This helps you to put yourself in the user’s shoes and identify problems naturally. Whenever you have free time, poke around your site and pick out new items to test or “quick wins” as you find them. Always be at the leading edge of your design.

Bringing It All Together

Regardless of your level of proficiency with UX, you can begin instilling “drunk user principles” in your designs today. Start with the fundamentals; aim for simple and usable designs. Then gather high quality user feedback by properly leveraging the tools at your disposal. Finally, bring your co-workers on board and initiate a team-wide effort to design with the user at heart. Before you know it, drunk and sober people alike will be loving your product.

I’m currently traveling and speaking about this topic