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Test and learn, usability testing and agile development

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This page gives you a basic overview of these terms and signposts to collections of resources where you can learn more.

What does a test and learn process look like?

When you take a user-led design approach to digital development, you'll see lots of advice telling you 'start small and test often'.

The aim is to avoid failed projects, and wasted time and money.

An arrow makes a circular shape. In a triangle arrangement on points on the circle there are three boxes. They say Learn/Assumptions  Build/Experiments and Measure/Metrics
The Learn - Build - Measure Cycle

The process starts with learning.

  • Map out what you know, what you assume, and what you don’t know about the problem you're trying to solve.
  • Bring in your user research.
  • Work out the highest priority things you need to address to solve the problem, or go towards solving a part of the problem. You can come back to the other needs after you’ve tested this first solution.

Next you can build something to meet those high priority needs.

Your aim is to build the smallest and most efficient thing to see if you're right about whether your solution really meets the needs.

Consider these questions.

  • Can we make a paper version first and test that?
  • Can we make a version in an existing tool like an online form to check the idea?
  • Are we adding to something we already have? How quick and easy is it to make changes to it?

Only build a new digital tool from scratch when you know it's the most efficient way to create what you need to test.

Now you’re ready to test the solution you have built.

Taking a usability testing approach will help. This means the following.

  • Identifying a task you want people to do using your new solution.
  • Deciding on your measure of success (what makes the task complete, what percentage of people do you hope will complete it).
  • Deciding how many people you want to test with and whether you want to do live tests (where you're present and observing them) or recorded tests that they do and send back to you.

Want to know more about the benefits of this approach? Read this blog about designing iteratively (another name for test and learn).

Thinking about usability testing

Usability testing doesn't have to be an expensive process. There are more sophisticated options for larger budgets including testing laboratories. But you can learn a lot from a series of short Zoom calls with just three to five people.

The main differences between more traditional ways of getting feedback on a digital tool or project are that you:

  • observe people using the tool and learn from what goes badly or well
  • ask people to speak out loud about their experience as they do the test and learn from their reactions
  • don’t ask people to make a judgment or give you an opinion.

More information about usability testing

Where does agile development fit in?

Agile development is a software development process that suits a test and learn or iterative design approach. It means you can start working with developers without having a full list of requirements for software features.

Instead you work together to understand what the people you want to help really need and prioritise the best way of meeting those needs.

Agile development fits really well with an approach that wants to experiment and get things right for the people you work with. It’s the best way to plan new digital services.

Find out more about agile:

Last reviewed: 02 March 2021

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 02 March 2021

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