5 Reasons You Need to Watch Real People Use Your App

Last week we jumped in a minivan for a software road trip with our client Knovation. Six of us drove from Cincinnati to Mooresville, North Carolina, to observe teachers and students at Mooresville Intermediate School using icurio—a web-based learning engagement tool we helped build over the past year or so.

While we’ve been doing user testing and user research all along, it’s still a rare treat for us to see the software in action at a real school. We talked with teachers and administrators, observed a teacher lesson planning session, and peered over the shoulders of fourth and fifth graders using icurio on their MacBook Airs.

In less than 24 hours, we learned a tremendous amount, and I think many of the day’s insights about the user experience would not have been possible without the site visit. Here are five reasons you need to watch people use your app in the real world ASAP:

1. They’re totally using it in ways you didn’t anticipate.

We expected icurio to be a place where teachers collaborated on lesson planning and empowered students to become more self-directed as they work through digital lessons. What we didn’t anticipate? One creative teacher built a lesson in icurio to show other teachers how they might use the app in their own classrooms. In other words, she used the app to teach other people how to use the app.

Another surprise: Our visit happened to land between two snow storms, and several teachers mentioned how the app helped their students stay on track despite multiple snow days. They were able to email parents and ask the kids to keep working through lessons at home. Then the app allowed the teachers to see those kids working remotely, track their progress and even answer questions.

2. Watching real users = huge burst of motivation.

It’s easy to become disconnected from how a piece of software impacts real people’s lives. Especially if you’re working through a tough feature, trying to improve a user interface design or create a consistent voice with copy. There’s nothing like a site visit to keep you motivated and remember why you’re logging all those hours.

One teacher, for instance, told us the app changed the entire way he teaches. He’s moved from a teacher centered classroom to a student centered one. Instead of him running things from the head of the class, his students now work by themselves—or in small groups—at their own pace. We were amazed to see kids sitting in small groups with their laptops or lounging on carpets or pillows on the floor.

Even more amazing? The software changed this teacher’s personal life, too. It’s so much easier to create lessons that he doesn’t have to work as many extra hours. As he put it, “I can spend time with my family again.”

3. You’ll discover unexpected pain points.

Of course, not everything is unicorns and rainbows. One of the most valuable parts of the day was learning about pain points both teachers and students ran into within the app. Nearly all the teachers asked for a better way to navigate the collections section, where they compile resources for future lessons. We were able to watch them use the feature, demonstrate pain points, and brainstorm potential solutions as a group.

Students had feedback for us, too. Besides asking for easier quiz questions, many wanted a fairly simple addition. There are numbered circles within each lesson to denote different activities, and students wanted icurio to tell them the name of each activity when they rolled over the numbers. It was exciting for them to give that idea directly to the software’s designer and have him respond, “Great idea. I can do that for you.”

4. You’ll walk away with dozens of cool new feature ideas.

As we walked around classrooms, I’d often ask students: If I gave you a magic wand and put you in charge of the app, what would you change or add? Most kids lit up when we asked for their ideas, and many requested similar features. Just one example: Students in a reading class wanted a button in the app to turn in assignments that didn’t include a formal set of questions.

Other students pulled up their web browsers and showed me different learning apps or websites they loved. One really enjoyed an app that automatically gave him extra activities to do once he’d finished his assignment. Another was drawn to a colorful navigation panel featuring bright tiles. They were cool, creative ideas, and as I told the kids how much I loved their ideas, they came up with even more suggestions.

5. You’ll really get to know your users and let them know they’re important.

It’s one thing to read user personas and something else to spend a few hours face-to-face with real people. We were struck by how passionate and excited all the teachers were to jump into digital learning and explore the app. One teacher specifically told us how much she appreciated our openness to feedback. She said it was rare for people to really dig in and try to figure out how to make life easier for students and teachers on a daily basis.

We also loved watching how tech-savvy the students were—from knowing a million keyboard commands to taking screenshots and wanting to learn Python. They talked to us about coding club and loved it when we asked for their ideas about how to make icurio better.

So what are you waiting for? It’s time to schedule your own software road trip.

Subscribe to the Gaslight Newsletter

Want more content like this? Subscribe to Gaslight’s monthly email newsletter for coding tips, tech insights, events, news and more.

Subscribe Now