top of page
  • Writer's pictureallisonsarno

Mastering Lean User Research: A Guide to Remote Usability Testing

Image of ux designer conducting remote ux testing

How to incorporate valuable lean user testing methods into your product design process without sacrificing your budget or speed to market .

It's no secret: a product's success hinges on its user experience. The best ones seamlessly meet user needs, anticipating behaviors and avoiding roadblocks. Large companies know this well – they invest heavily in user testing. My experience at a global agency working with with regional banks and nationwide retailers introduced me to a world of advanced user research and user testing practices. Imagine pristine testing labs with mirrored walls, cutting-edge eye-tracking technology, and even fully stocked mock retail stores for life-like simulations!

I interacted regularly with skilled user research teams dedicated to understanding user behavior and product interaction. They used methods like concept testing, focus groups, usability testing, and more – all tailored to glean specific insights that they skillfully summarized in detailed analysis and recommendations.

Sounds like a dream right? It was pretty spectacular but as you can imagine, user testing at this level can be costly and time-consuming which translates to a no-go for most startups and small companies. But it definitely doesn't have to be quite so involved or complicated.

If you approach user testing with a lean mindset, you can absolutely conduct user testing fast and inexpensively with very good and reliable results.

When it comes to lean UX and user testing, there are various ways to gather user feedback and a full spectrum of "leaness" in regards to effort and cost. In this post, I will focus on lean usability testing specifically: its value to startups and how to implement it effectively. Why, usability testing you might ask? This is the type of user research I've found most valuable in my freelance product design practice. Yes, it's more involved than tapping someone at the water cooler but totally accessible and achievable for most startups and new businesses.

Starting with the basics... what is Lean Usability Testing?

Usability testing, at its core, is about evaluating your product's ease of use by observing real users interact with it. Lean Usability Testing takes this concept a step further by adopting a streamlined approach that aligns with the fast-paced nature of startups.

The core principles of Lean User Testing:

  1. Focused Objectives: Identify specific usability goals you want to achieve through testing. Whether it's uncovering navigation issues or optimizing form interactions, pinpoint your priorities and don't get carried away with too many objectives.

  2. Selective Participants: Opt for a small, targeted selection of participants that represent your target audience. Five is often considered the "magic" number when it comes to how many tests are needed in order to see trends emerge.

  3. Rapid Iteration: Embrace quick and iterative cycles of testing, analyzing, and refining. Avoid too much documentation or overly complex tests. This approach minimizes the time between gathering insights and implementing improvements.

  4. Minimum Viable Prototype: Develop a basic prototype that encapsulates the key features or interactions you wish to test. Focus on functionality rather than aesthetics.

  5. Remote Set Up: While not required, conducting tests remotely will open up your pool of potential participants, simplify your testing set up and generally be less expensive.

How to implement lean usability testing

While I am emphasizing a lean approach here, it is still important to be methodical and consistent in setting up your tests so that you have accurate and reliable results. The following six steps outline exactly what is needed in order to ensure you glean reliable and relevant results while sticking to a tight timeline and budget.

Step 1: Define your objectives

Pin down the specific usability aspects you wish to evaluate. Are you aiming to enhance the onboarding process, streamline navigation, or optimize a specific feature?

Start this process with a one page doc that describes the following:

  • What you want to learn from the test

  • What tasks you want users to complete

  • The target participants (How many, their demographics and requirements)

  • Their compensation

  • How the test will be conducted *I.E remote testing etc...

Share this document with your team to ensure alignment on the goals and test structure.

Step 2: Recruit relevant participants

Aim to interview aleast 5 to 6 participants who mirror your target user base. Recruiting from your family and friends or social media may be a good place to start, however, sometimes it's impossible to find the right users this way.

When conducting user testing for Ava, a Swiss Femtech startup, I was able to regularly tap into their very active Facebook community for willing participants. With other clients, I've had to look a little harder., a B2B startup based in Switzerland required English speaking professional business managers to test their product - preferably working for US companies. After exhausting our social media networks, and a not-so-great experience interviewing a series of malevolent trolls pretending to fit my criteria, I turned to to recruit qualified participants. This self-service platform has all the features you need to find, recruit, schedule and compensate participants from their vast database. I was able to send out a screener, schedule and compensate my participants all within their platform. But most importantly, I could require links to their LinkedIn profiles which enabled me to validate their credentials and only interview the folks who looked legit. The global "CEO" with one LinkedIn follower did NOT make the cut.

However you choose to recruit users, you'll want to be sure you're speaking to people who would actually use your product. Therfor, its best to send out a short survey or "screener" with a few questions to ensure your participants meet the criteria for your test. has the screener questions integrated within their platform but if you are recruiting a different way, a simple Google Form will do the trick.

I also recommend incentivizing participants with a gift card or cash. In my experience this makes people much more likely to show up on test day and reflects well on your company.

Step 3: Develop a minimal prototype and write a usability test script

The prototype

Create a simplified prototype that encapsulates the core interactions you want to test. The aim is to focus on functionality rather than intricate design elements (Unless of course that is what you are testing) Because I typically test remotely, I use Figma to create prototypes. In the past have also used Sketch and Invision. Just try to keep it simple but clickable is key.

The test script

Next, you will need to write a test script that outlines the tasks you want the users to complete and the questions you plan to ask... I tend to write mine verbatim... including an introduction describing the exercise, my directions and questions for the users as they run through each task. I always leave a little time at the end for open ended feedback and thoughts. I follow the script as closely as I can on each every test to ensure uniformity. And in some cases, share with a colleague who may also be conducting tests.

Step 4: Conduct the usability tests

Participants are on deck, prototype is ready to go and your script in hand. All that is left is to moderate the actual tests.

For the sake of simplicity, I highly recommend conducting tests remotely as opposed to in person, in a lab. First and foremost, having users test your product in their "natural habitat", is a much less intimidating and normal environment for them. Secondly, you won't be relegated to your geography and can meet users from anywhere in the world. It's also much easier to find willing participants and a whole lot cheaper than renting out a lab.

Remote Usability Testing Software

With that said, there are a few different tools or combinations of tools you can use to conduct, record and summarize your tests.

Leverage a tool you already use like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet. This works great when you are testing desktop applications and websites... Just send your participant the link, have them share their screen and record.

But if you want to take your user testing to the next level, use a tool geared specifically for remote user testing. is a robust remote testing tool that has all of the features of Zoom etc, plus the additional ability to notate, edit and export your recordings, record click/tap indicators and create a transcript. In my experience, Lookback is a particularly good option if you are testing a mobile website or application. I've used it extensively for testing app designs specifically.

Moderation Best Practices

As for the interviews themselves, here are a few pointers to ensure good quality, non-biased results:

  • Always have participants interact with your prototype while voicing their thoughts aloud.

  • Observe their actions and identify pain points, confusion, or areas of improvement.

  • Dig deeper when needed, but don't offer any "hints" along the way.

  • Remind them there are no right or wrong answers

  • Stick to the script and stay consistent

  • If it takes more than an hour to run through a usability test, it's way too long

To keep this process lean and mean, try to conduct all of your tests in one day if possible. But be sure to conduct a "dress rehearsal" the day before with a colleague to ensure your prototype and meeting software is working well without any hiccups.

Step 5: Analyze and refine

This is the part of testing that can be the most tedious if you've conducted a boatload of user tests and only have yourself to sift through all of the feedback.

Enter AI. There are many tools available but on tool I can recommend is a Chrome extension called Supernormal. Install this tool to record your Zoom, Google Meet or Teams sessions. It will not only record your meetings, it will create a transcript AND... wait for it... a very nicely worded summary with next steps.

Step 6: Iterate, rinse and repeat.

Now's the time to implement necessary changes to your prototype based on the insights gained. Pat yourself on the back for ensuring that validating your designs with users is now an integral part of your product design and development process. But don't rest on your laurels for too long because there's another set of features around the corner just yearning for additional user feedback.

Why continue lean user testing? Isn't once enough?

In a perfect world, we'd create the most amazing design solutions on the first try and have all of our users' pain points addressed, in the most thoughtfully designed and intuitive interface imaginable. But that rarely happens. Sometimes we blunder and overlook flaws or miss the mark entirely. This trial and error is all a part of the process. It's also a heck of a lot easier to fix those flaws early on, before they've been developed. By conducting smaller tests often, we have more opportunities to learn, fewer interfaces to completely rework and much less risk overall.

Most importantly, conducting usability testing on an ongoing basis cultivates a user-centric mindset that sets the foundation for sustainable growth and validates a commitment to putting users at the heart of your product offering. And we all know that's a really good idea.

About the Author

Allison Sarno is a product and branding designer based in Zürich, Switzerland. She specializes in lean design for startups and emerging brands. Have a project you'd like to discuss? Reach out at


bottom of page