Integrating design activities into lab-based user testing can accelerate efforts to improve online products and experiences. We call this hybrid approach Rapid Research and Design (RRaD).

A traditional process of testing, design and retesting can take weeks or months; with RRaD, initial design solutions are developed in less than a week. The RRaD approach works because of the fast-paced alternation of user testing and design.

Clients have found this to be an engaging and cost-effective way to generate new ideas that are grounded in the real-world perspective of users. Here is a typical sequence:

1. Initial user testing. RRaD begins with three or four user testing sessions to gain an initial understanding of the product’s weaknesses and opportunities. A designer observes the tests and interprets the results with the product team.

2. Design on-the-fly. The designer develops new concepts based on observations and the product team’s perspective. The new concepts may be refinements of an existing design or represent an entirely new design direction; they may be in the form of paper-and-pencil sketches or more detailed mock-ups.

3. Watch, listen, and refine. In subsequent testing sessions, designers observe study participants exploring the new concepts. After each session, the testing and product teams huddle to interpret the latest feedback. The designer adjusts the design concepts accordingly for the remaining sessions.

4. Synthesize. After testing is complete, the researcher, designer, and product team discuss and identify which design directions were successful and why. A concise report documents any identified problems, and includes design concepts for future exploration.

A leading insurance company came to Cooper with the following problem: They had invested considerable resources in providing online marketing services to insurance agents, but agents’ use of the services was in gradual decline.

Cooper recruited 24 test participants from the key user populations of agents and regional managers. In the initial sessions, participants were interviewed about their marketing needs, and were then asked to complete realistic tasks on the insurance company’s marketing site.

After a day and a half of testing, the same problems started to come up again and again. Certain aspects of the site were clearly broken, and nothing more could be learned through observing another set of participants struggle with them.

A Cooper designer began exploring new design ideas, which were presented to a participant at the end of the second testing day. Over the next two testing days, the team continued to revise and refine.

By the end of day four, three design concepts had been developed for the marketing site’s home page. The teams learned (among other things): that common actions should be prominently displayed and written in plain language, that users should be able to quickly select marketing materials by product and type, and that marketing success feature stories would be of interest to some visitors.

The client went away with more than a statement of current problems; they received design concepts and participant responses pointing the way to an improved user experience.

The RRaD offering is appropriate in the following situations:

  • A product is not working as expected, and design and research teams need to diagnose issues and propose new ideas in short order.
  • A design direction is needed for a new page or feature, but time is limited when it comes to executing a complete design process. 

Application of RRaD should focus on a certain aspect of a product, such as a home page or a key transaction flow. Study participants should be selected from a pool of actual users, and the product team should be ready to jump into an intensive process that evolves as new information comes in.