If you’ve ever been to a spin class, you may think there isn’t much variability in the experience: a dark room, music with a beat, an instructor yelling to change the level to 8 and keep pushing. SoulCycle offers something different.

From the minute you walk in the door, SoulCycle fosters a sense of community. Heading into class, you pass by the lockers where the previous class is exiting—giving a chance for serendipitous encounters. The instructors shout inspirational quotes as you pump up a hill and hover above your saddle.

With this emphasis on the whole user experience, it’s no wonder that SoulCycle has garnered something of a cult following, even at 34 bucks a class—which sell out quickly.

“On Mondays at noon—when the upcoming week’s schedule for SoulCycle is released—if you’re not on the computer hitting the keys right then like an eBay addict on the hunt for porcelain figurines, you’re often out of luck.”

–From a Vanity Fair article on SoulCycle

Obviously, this part of the experience doesn’t seem to be in line with the brand. SoulCycle decided to create a mobile app so riders wouldn’t have to be glued to their desktops in anticipation of booking a class.

Prolific Interactive, the agency that SoulCycle hired to create the app, went through the entire design thinking process, from empathy-based user research to testing—using InVision along the way for testing prototypes and getting feedback from stakeholders.

The Prolific team worked out at SoulCycle twice a week, manned the front desk at the studio, and “interviewed the founders, staff, and frequent riders to understand the inner workings of the company.” Getting insights from these observations and interviews guided them as they began working on early solutions.

Beginner’s mind

Adopting a beginner’s mind is valuable at every step of the design process. To test early solutions and not be blinded by assumptions, the Prolific team needed to tackle their challenge with fresh eyes. The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki writes that, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

As you Empathize, it allows you to be open to the experiences of people from different backgrounds and see things from their perspectives. When you Define, it helps you reframe your point of view to see a problem from a different angle. As you Ideate, a beginner’s mind prevents you from being judgmental about ideas that seem trivial or silly, but which may spur new approaches to a problem.

Building your Prototype, a beginner’s mindset helps remind you that the purpose of a prototype is to answer critical questions quickly—not to highlight your mastery as a designer.

And when you test your prototype, a beginner’s mindset opens you to both the many possible directions of your design and to the ways it might address real human needs. Each step along the way affords an opportunity to rethink, relearn, and reboot as needed. The design process is rarely linear.

Test early, test often

If prototyping is where the fun begins for many designers, testing is where it can get a little scary. Getting your product ideas in front of real users for feedback can be daunting. But the whole basis for prototyping early and often is intended to keep us from forming attachments to ideas that may or may not be worthwhile.

By testing our prototypes with real users in context, observing their reactions, and getting feedback, we can refine our POV, learn more about our users, and make the next iteration of the product that much better. As they say at Stanford’s d.school, “Prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong.”

It’s important to test prototypes early in the design process so you can quickly correct course if your product hypotheses are incorrect. As we discussed in Fast feedback, testing these assumptions early will help you build better products faster.

Once the Prolific team started building prototypes, they tested them on site. The great thing about this situation was they didn’t have to do any user recruiting. SoulCycle welcomed the team to run prototypes by their riders as often as they liked (while being respectful of their time, of course). This also had the benefit of mirroring the context where users were booking a class.

There was already some anxiety about getting into class on time, so users were forced to go through the app test in a hurry, which quickly revealed speed bumps in the flow. The team eventually moved on to more formal user testing sessions, observing users in a conference room as they went through a few scenarios while thinking aloud.

Throughout the process, the Prolific team relied on a rapid prototyping and testing cycle and kept the SoulCycle stakeholders updated with new insights and observations, rather than “keeping the research and design process hidden behind a curtain for weeks before revealing it in a comprehensive research report that no one would end up reading.”

The app is a huge hit with riders, and it’s largely thanks to the collaborative effort between Prolific, SoulCycle, and users who helped test the prototypes.

Keeping a beginner’s mindset

The Tega is a cuddly, expressive robot that MIT researchers developed as a personalized educational assistant for young children. Designed to act as a peer in digital learning environments, Tega’s facial expression recognition allows it to mimic a child’s demeanor, which the MIT team hoped would help the robot and child bond during learning sessions.

They could have tried to test this hypothesis in the lab, but they would have had no clue whether young kids would actually find the robot charming, scary, or boring. So they brought a Tega prototype to a classroom to test in context with preschoolers.

The results were fantastic. Team member Goren Gordon said, “After a while the students started hugging it, touching it, making the expression it was making and playing independently with almost no intervention or encouragement.” And even more crucially, Tega was able to increase the children’s positive feelings toward it with its physical behaviors—leaning over like it was interested or making happy noises.

These parameters are critical. They were testing the prototype in context (at a preschool, with kids in the target demographic), and were able to observe the reactions of the users in real-time. They didn’t rely on a survey or focus group about the experience (which with children at this age wouldn’t have worked anyway). Observing these gut reactions is what makes testing with a prototype so powerful; it’s hard for people to fake enthusiasm or hide frustrations when interacting with a product, and so the signal is clear.

With these tests, the MIT team was able to determine that Tega was a promising platform for other educational contexts, such as helping students with learning disabilities. And they never would have discovered this if they hadn’t brought the prototype out into the real world, embracing the fact that they didn’t know what the results would be.

Having a beginner’s mindset and testing assumptions early in the design process will help you design better products faster. It can be just as important to carry this mindset to later tests, when a product is more developed, to answer questions about critical scenarios. This is exactly what the Google Ventures team did to help robotics company Savioke (see the interview with Daniel Burka below).

It takes a lot of effort to round up participants for in-person, one-on-one tests, but the results are compelling. Below we outline some testing techniques and suggestions for a variety of timeline and budgetary considerations.

Setting up your test

Set objectives

What specifically are you testing, and what do you want to know? This drives everything that comes next: the questions you ask, the people you recruit, and how you determine success.

Recruiting users

As we’ve seen in the examples above, running user tests in person is the ideal situation, but recruiting users to come to your office (or better yet, to visit in-situ where they will be using the product) isn’t always feasible. In the Fast feedback section of Principles of Product Design, we run through some ideas for recruiting both in-person and remote users.

Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research also has some fantastic tips for recruiting users. She highlights the importance of setting the parameters for a good research participant (e.g., “shares the concerns and goals of your target users” and “can articulate their thoughts clearly”). She also outlines how to create a screener, so you can “weed out the ax murderers and the fatally inarticulate.” And she gives some great tips on places to post a link to the screener—friends and family can be a great resource for sharing (assuming they are likely to reach your target demographic), and Craigslist (along with social media) is your friend.

If you’re constrained to remote testing, services like ethn.io and UserTesting can provide you with users in fairly targeted demographics.

Testing the prototype

Once you’ve recruited your users, create an experience for them that puts the prototype into a context as close to real life use as possible, whether it’s before a workout like SoulCycle or testing in a hotel like Savioke. You want your users to react to the experience, not to an explanation of the prototype. The more real-life it feels, the more natural these reactions will be.

It’s also important to show, not tell. Once your user is set up with the experience, prototype in hand, don’t explain everything right away. Give them a chance to figure things out, and observe how they use the product. Is it intuitive, or are your users confused or frustrated? What kind of questions do they have? Look for smiles or frowns as they work with the prototype.

Finally, remember in the Ideate phase where you came up with several ideas to test? It can be helpful to bring multiple prototypes to a testing session. This will give users more fodder to react to and compare against (e.g. “the version of the SoulCycle app that introduced the trainer with a video was great, but I really just need to book my session as quickly as possible, so I’m more inclined to use the version without it because it’s faster.”)

Capturing video and audio of your users in action with the prototype will be helpful in the next step. You don’t need anything fancy—just use the equipment you have at hand (smartphones and screen recording software will work just fine). Michael Margolis at Google Ventures outlines a slightly more elaborate setup, which can be handy if you’re testing mobile prototypes.

Reviewing and synthesizing observations

After you’re done with testing sessions, it’s important to take the time to review and synthesize your findings. Again, Just Enough Research is a great resource for this. In her section on analyzing the data from user research, Erika Hall outlines how to structure the session (summarize goals, pull quotes and observations), the space and supplies you’ll need (sticky notes and sharpies!), and the types of data to look for (user goals and priorities).

Another great resource for debriefing and synthesizing is from Brendan Mulligan at Cluster. Mulligan outlines some great tips and techniques for holding a viewing party and capturing insights from your team, and identifying and bucketing patterns as a group.

Once you’ve had a chance to synthesize the data and group patterns, take a look at how they support or contradict your original POVs. This is an iterative process. Testing your prototypes should give you a chance to refine your original hypotheses and make the product that much better in the next round.

Empathy and compassion

Empathy is the heart of design, as it allows us to experience the situations our users find themselves in. Empathy lets us discover opportunities to make those experiences less frightening—like Doug Dietz did for children needing MRIs—or more delightful, like the Savioke team did with Relay.

Compassion in tandem with a beginner’s mind helps us translate empathy into action. If we instill a sense of duty toward users in our designs, we can align our products with the humans who use them—and perhaps improve their lives along the way. We can remain open to the possibility that our first ideas weren’t our best ideas, and that by taking an iterative approach and gaining insights from our users as we test prototypes, we can make better products.

As designers, we have a real impact on how our products take shape, how users experience them, and the consequences of their use. We hope that you have a chance to use these opportunities with empathy and compassion, and design products that you’re proud to bring into the world.