You can test a new feature without any sketches, mockups or code. Here’s how.
If you’re thinking of a new feature, but you’re unsure if it’s appropriate, the typical approach is to create a lean prototype and test that. But creating prototypes is time-consuming, and the results are limited by the fact that prototypes rarely include full functionality.
If, however, you’ve come across a similar implementation of the feature in the wild, you can simply test that to gut-check your hypothesis. I call this The Instant Prototype.
The way we ask users to sign up or log in to TED has too much friction. I know this not only from personal experience, but because I’ve done user testing on our authentication flows in the past (more on that in an upcoming story).
I began researching other sign-up methods, and one approach that I found particularly intriguing is passwordless authentication (read more on this approach via links at the end of this story). I found a great implementation of passwordless auth at Medium, so tested it. (In fact, Medium pioneered passwordless authentication about a year ago.)
I created a simple test on usertesting.com asking users to sign-up for a Medium account. I tested both mobile and desktop Web as well as Medium’s iOS and Android apps for tablet and phone, 27 tests in all.
Usertesting.com is great: within a few hours, all 27 tests were complete and I was able to get a good sense of how users interacted with the passwordless authentication model. In other words, in less than half a day I gathered insights that would have taken a week or a month if I’d used traditional prototyping methods.
Isn’t this cheating?
So you’re going to design a shopping cart for your e-commerce site without looking at best practices? Doubtful (and risky). If a few of the examples you find rise to the top of the pile, why not test them to see if there’s anything you might apply to your product?
Take the authentication example above: there are only so many ways to skin that cat. Most authentication flows follow a few, narrowly defined patterns. When a new, promising pattern emerges, testing it to see how well it works falls under the category of best practice research, in my opinion. Hopefully, you’ll take what you learn, improve upon it if possible, and adapt it to your own product. If you do it right, maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to have someone else use your product as their own Instant Prototype!
Caveats, of course
The Instant Prototype is not without limitations. For example, it requires a real-world example of an interaction that’s very similar in form and function to what you’re considering; it won’t work for a new, innovative feature that’s unique to your product; it shouldn’t be used as a proxy for innovative concept development; and it’s not a substitute for designing, developing, and testing your own prototypes if The Instant Prototype passes muster.
Nonetheless, as a way to quickly vet a given interaction model before investing significant design and development time—gut-checking your hypothesis, that is—The Instant Prototype is a great option.
Curious about Medium’s passwordless authentication?
It tested very well. Nearly all subjects signed up for a Medium account without a hitch. More than a few commented that they were “pleasantly surprised” that they didn’t have to create a password. Comparing sign-up times and error rates to our own auth flow, Medium did better overall.
Three of the test subjects complained that they didn’t like having to go to their email to click a confirmation link—either they use webmail and found this to be a hassle, or they used a “spam-type” email account for account creation. I consider this mostly a non-issue, however, since a traditional authentication flow also requires confirmation via email. One user said that the lack of a password raised security concerns for him, but this is no less secure than a reset password email found in most authentication flows.
In any event, The Instant Prototype served its purpose: it let me test another model without having to spend days or weeks creating a prototype.
More on passwordless auth
If you’re interested, here are some interesting articles about the state of passwords and passwordless authentication.
- Signing in to Medium by email
- Passwords are Obsolete
- The Current State Of Authentication: We Have A Password Problem
- Why Passwordless Authentication Works