We’ve often described modern technology as highly sophisticated, highly connected, and continuously iterative. The rapid-fire changes of 2020 didn’t change that — in fact, it brought those qualities into sharper relief. It highlighted both the reliability of technology and its shortcomings. 2021 will be shaped by companies that have the best understanding of these nuances and the vision to act on them.
Customer testing, by design, is a gateway to uncovering and acting on exactly that. It relies on target-market users to identify both the best and worst parts of your product before release. It’s different from QA: it’s about ease and practicality of use, not just working to spec. It’s different from market research: the feedback is about refining a mostly developed product, not starting from scratch. And it’s different from user testing: it asks real customers how they’re using your product at home (rather than observes them) and gets to the heart of what could make it more indispensable for them.
Here are three major ways that tech companies used customer testing last year to roll with the punches, adapt their products accordingly, and lay the groundwork for success in 2021.
High Stakes, High Consequences
2020 increased the stakes of everything, especially technology. Before March, it was hard to imagine tech being a bigger part of our lives than it already was. But these devices — from fitness equipment to home office tools to devices for talking with friends and family — went from a luxury to a critical lifeline for managing every aspect of our lives.
A faulty webcam is no longer as simple as grabbing a replacement from IT. You can’t shrug off the complicated process of creating tickets in your project management software because you won’t get the details in an in-person meeting tomorrow. Consumers had limited patience for complicated and glitchy products before 2020; these days, that patience has evaporated. To avoid returns, negative reviews, and flooded support lines, your products have to work correctly. Right now.
That’s where customer testing comes in. Testing before release in real homes with target market users is the most reliable method for identifying and fixing these problems. And it’s critically important for companies to do it so that their customers don’t have to. There are long-term, positive effects to putting your customers first. Just as tired, frustrated consumers are intensely critical of faulty products, they’ll reward you with their loyalty when things work just as they should.
Protecting Data and Ensuring Privacy
Concerns over data security have been brewing for quite a while, but the combination of wide-spread work from home (WFH), the adoption of tech that supports WFH, very public incidents (like the gigantic Twitter hack in July ’20, for example), and increased scrutiny on big tech companies like Facebook and Google have all pushed these concerns into the spotlight. And they go hand in hand with demands for more data privacy: consumers want more control over their data and to make sure that data is protected.
Customer testing isn’t a supplement for ensuring data security — it’s an industry in its own right, after all — but it stills plays an important role in supporting company initiatives for more secure and transparent customer data management.
After Zoom came under fire for big security issues in April ’20, the company got to work addressing those issues with gusto — from increased bug bounty programs to rigorous beta testing for new features like end-to-end call encryption. This is a great example of companies relying on real-world testing to improve their products and services in this area.
Tech companies also used customer testing to monitor how users interacted with new privacy features and to keep track of feature requests incoming directly from their audience. Using surveys while testing to see the features your audience wants to use makes the efforts of both your product and engineering teams more efficient.
Increasing Use Cases
When shelter orders took effect, we saw employees trading their cubicles for home offices and companies scrambling to rework their processes. Tech devices that were once easy to buy, like webcams, became as scarce as toilet paper. It tested our resourcefulness not only as consumers but also as product makers. With thousands of brand-new use cases popping up, tech companies were looking for ways to both increase product stability and stay lean.
The way we use products has also changed — noise-canceling headsets suddenly need to drown out the sound of the dishwasher and playing children instead of mechanical keyboards and low voices at the water cooler. It’s the same game but in an entirely different ballpark. That’s where real-world testing becomes indispensable; it’s impossible to capture this nuance in a lab.
Companies like Peloton, Bose, iRobot, and thousands of others used their customer testers as access points into the changing landscape of consumer homes and work practices. This enabled their engineering, QA, and product teams to navigate seamlessly through the turbulence of 2020 and avoid costly pitfalls without ever taking their finger off the pulse of their audience.
What’s Ahead in 2021?
2020 is a great example of how the world turns on a dime. Customer testing helps companies turn with it; it has enabled the key players in today’s tech industry to hit the ground running and seamlessly react to whatever big changes get thrown their way.
Just as tech has evolved, customer testing has evolved to support it. Product developers are adopting processes to future-proof their business — continuously iterative, lean, and more agile — and upgrading their testing processes to support those initiatives. The companies and the products that have best supported big changes in the world are the ones that have embraced these processes. See their ROI for yourself in this report.