Thursday, 18 January 2018

How can you learn if you don’t test?


Even in my few years of working in fundraising and marketing here I’ve noticed a real shift in mind-set from the very top. We’ve stopped thinking we know everything! Instead of thinking we’re right without question, we’ve adopted an approach where our decisions are increasingly based on insights. We’re listening to our supporters more than ever and they inform the direction in which we move.

Stop being so vague and give us an example

Ok, ok. I’ll cut to the chase. I joined a Digital Spoke in 2016 to help design and develop a personal account for our supporters to use. Without going into the exact details of the product, it changed our team’s way of working beyond just this project. We worked in synergy with the Digital team and learned so much about adopting an agile approach to tasks while also gaining a huge amount of experience of different digital tools!

But I don’t want to talk to you about all of that. As exciting as it was, I think the way our team worked independently post-Spoke is the most impressive part of the project.

What’s so great then? Spit it out already!

The first thing we did was to maintain our daily stand ups which helped keep everyone focused. Each morning we huddled around a screen which showed all of the bitesize cards on our Trello board and we’d assess their progress. Reviewing this frequently really helped to keep things front of mind while also holding people accountable for completing tasks.

Both before and during our series of recruitment communications we held testing plan meetings where we could vote for which ideas we wanted to test using an effort vs. impact matrix. Where possible we’d go for what we felt were low effort, high impact tests! By holding these meetings in between each recruitment drive they also acted as an evaluation of the previous tests which was very useful context for planning.

What about when people signed up?

During the Spoke we gained a lot of experience at creating and manipulating dashboards and custom reports on Google Analytics. This allowed us to understand in real time how users were interacting with the product, what was working well and where we should be focusing our attention. Of course we sought expert advice for more difficult queries, but for the most part we were self-sufficient which was very encouraging.

Some of the trends we spotted through analytics caused us to implement real time optimisation tests. For example, when we spotted a dip in the conversion rate on the registration form we A/B tested different wording and infographics using Optimizely in an attempt to bring this up again.

How did people know what you were doing?

One of the key principles of agile working is to share progress and learnings with stakeholders and the wider organisation. Although we did this regularly with key stakeholders, we wanted to improve how we communicated to the wider organisation. It required an adjustment to how we approached the project but it definitely helped improve our skills and confidence at presenting. We’d give engaging updates every two weeks or so where anyone could show up and listen. The best thing about them was the questions we’d get asked which provoked thoughts and ideas we hadn’t previously considered.

To make this more accessible, we’d record the presentations and upload them to our Wiki page which increased our reach. This also allowed us to re-watch each one retrospectively to hone and improve our public speaking skills.

So what’s happening next?

This is a really exciting time to be working for Cancer Research UK. The direction we’re moving in as a charity is becoming inevitably more digital and we’re facing this challenge head on by devolving skills, knowledge and expertise into the product and marketing teams. This success of this Spoke is simply one example. The way we’ve carried these skills on post-Spoke and continued this way of working has really helped to take this project from strength to strength – but this is a process that is becoming more prevalent in all areas of the charity.

Graham Goodings
Digital Producer


Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Writing for the Web at Cancer Research UK

A few weeks ago at Cancer Research UK we had the 200th person attend our ‘Writing for the Web’ course. After celebrating with a ticker-tape parade and a commemorative Twix, it got me reflecting on the course, and why we started running it in the first place.

We’ve written a bunch of stuff about our digital devolution model, and how we aim to make digital a core part of everyone’s job at the charity. And a key part of this is how we communicate our brand online.

So my team started a 2 hour workshop for anyone who publishes content on our website. And, because we have the skills to deliver this internally, it means we can be flexible and run the course as often as needed - without spending money on external training providers.

So what’s covered?

Write the way your users read

Most people get that print and digital content are different. We understand that reading this blog on an iPhone is a fundamentally different experience than reading an article on copywriting in a magazine. 

But, what we sometimes don’t recognise is that as readers, we have fundamentally different attitudes to how we approach content in print and digital. 

Someone much smarter than me called Jakob Nielsen did a bunch of research using eye tracking software to record how people read content online.

He found that, whereas with traditional print content we (in European languages at least) read left to right and top to bottom, in digital we tend to scan around the page in more of an ‘F’ shape.


As users we go to websites with a specific problem, and we’re scanning the page to get the ‘gist’ of how well the page we’re on will solve that problem for us.

So our content needs to make it clear to users how we’re meeting their needs at a glance. They won’t take the time to wade through irrelevant or hard to understand information to get what they’re looking for. If they aren’t convinced our content will help them they’ll just leave.

Which is why we need to make it clear how our content will benefit our users.  

Write for your users, not for you

There’s an old saying in copywriting, “features tell, but benefits sell”. The idea is that just explaining what your product or service is won’t engage your users. Instead you need to explain how it will make your users’ lives better.

This is the most important thing about writing for digital. If you can relentlessly focus on how your content is going to help your users, rather than how your content is going to help your organisation, it’s the quickest way to improve its performance.

So what does this look like?

Well, imagine for a second you’re a humble pie maker, who wants to promote a competition on your website, www.piespiespies.com. 


You might use this as your opening line:

To celebrate 10 years in business, we’re running a competition to win free pie for a year.

Here, the focus is very much on your business. It’s a statement of fact, and it’s written from the perspective of your business. It’s feature-led.

Now imagine an alternative opening line:

Win free pie for a year with our anniversary competition.

Here the focus is on what the competition will do for your user. Does your user care that your business has been around for 10 years? Probably not. Do they care about free pie? Well, who doesn’t? So this sentence is more benefit-led.

Ok, great - but why is this important?

Well, think about it in context of scan reading. If a user’s quickly skimming your page, you’ll want to draw their attention to relevant content as quickly as possible. And they’re much more likely to engage if they can see, at a glance, what’s in it for them. 

Then, once we’ve got their attention, the next thing we need to do is make sure we express ourselves in a way that’s easy to understand. Which is where Plain English comes in. 

Write the way you talk 

Back when I started my career, I used to worry about how seriously people would take my writing. I used to think that to sound credible I needed to use lots of long, complicated words. After all, that would help me come across as smart and authoritative, right?

Well, actually, the opposite was true. By loading my writing with complicated phrases I wasn’t coming across as smart. I was coming across as confusing and difficult to understand.

Sarah Richards is another person much smarter than me, and she makes the point that writing in Plain English isn’t dumbing down content, it’s opening it up. Because if we know our users scan information online, and we know they react better to clear, benefit-led sentences, then why wouldn’t we try and make our writing as clear and concise as possible? 

At Cancer Research UK, our guidance on Plain English is pretty straightforward:
  • Keep your sentences short (20 words max) 
  • Use a maximum of 3 sentences per paragraph
  • Only discuss 1 thing per paragraph (it’s easier to scan that way)
  • If you have the choice between a long word, and a short word that means the same thing, then always pick the short word
If in doubt, a good rule of thumb is ‘write the way you speak’. This doesn’t mean talking the same way you would to your friends at Friday night drinks. Instead, think about how you’d explain your content to your users over a coffee and a Twix. What words would you use? How would you speak? 

I imagine you’d be friendly, straightforward and to the point. I also imagine you wouldn’t use phrases like ‘for further information please direct any inquiries to our helpline’. I mean, you might, but you’d come across as slightly robotic if you did.

A great tool you can use to check how clear your writing is, is Hemingway App. It’s a free, online word processor, so you can type straight into your browser window. And, as you type, Hemingway grades how easy your writing is to understand and suggests improvements. The lower the score the better, and if you aim for a score between 6 and 8 you’ll find your content is doing pretty well.

Write better by writing more often

This is just a snapshot of the content training we offer at Cancer Research UK, and as far as content strategy goes it’s one piece of the wider puzzle.

Before you sit down and create your content you’ll need to make sure it answers a clear user and business need. You’ll need to make sure it has appropriate governance so it doesn’t all fall apart once it’s been published. And you’ll need to make sure you regularly test it so you know it’s still doing the job it should.

However, what this training does give teams is a solid grounding in the skills they need for writing for the web. Will they create world class digital content straight away? Well, probably not – it’s kind of hard to after a 2 hour introduction course. 

But writing something that’s a solid base is a great first step. Then based on users’ feedback you can always improve, iterate and optimise your content over time. Plus, bear in mind the only way you’ll become a better writer is by writing. And if your content is in plain, straightforward English that speaks to your users’ needs, it’ll already be better than a lot of content online. 

Chris Flood
Content Strategy Lead

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Digital innovations to beat cancer sooner

It’s been 3 months since I started my internship with the Digital Innovation team at Cancer Research UK. Before this I had no experience in digital so it’s been a steep learning curve.

I didn’t realise before I started what a forward thinking and exciting environment I was entering into. The value of what digital transformation can and has added at Cancer Research UK is amazing. From learning about the innovations going on in the directorate to leading on my own project with the Digital Innovation team, it’s been a fantastic experience.


Everyday innovation at Cancer Research UK

In my time at Cancer Research UK I wrote a bi-weekly newsletter about technology innovation. A part of this was the Innovator of the Week section. This gave me the opportunity to speak to people across the charity about the innovations they’re working on. For example, the analytics and reporting team are developing text analysis programmes to analyse survey responses, so that top level conclusions can be drawn and acted on faster. And the clinical partnerships team are investigating partnering with organisations to research how artificial intelligence can be used to beat cancer sooner.

There are claims that AI could help to identify cancer from scans up to 50,000 times faster, which could make a massive difference to how quickly diagnoses can be made.

As well as these exciting ongoing innovations, there was also the chance to learn about innovation success stories. Our pulmonary nodules app helps clinicians calculate the risk of a pulmonary nodule being cancerous or benign. Helping them to make faster decisions and get the right people the right tests. It was also great to see that although this is a finished product used by clinicians, the team is improving the user experience and making it available for more devices.


Voice technology

As an intern in the digital innovation team I got the chance to look at Voice technology. Voice devices are voice controlled speakers, so you can ask them to carry out tasks and communicate with them by talking to them like you would a person. Amazon Alexa devices will activate when you start the command with ‘Alexa…?’. So you can do anything from ordering takeaway, to controlling your heating, to making a to-do list all by asking Alexa.

While only 9% of households currently have an Alexa compatible device, Radiocentre estimate that 40% of households may have a voice device in 2018 and that soon there will be 33 million devices in circulation. This could be a new and exciting way for supporters to engage with Cancer Research UK, and for us to communicate with them.

My team has produced two Amazon Alexa skills; the Cancer Research UK Science Blog skill and the My Alcohol Tracker skill. Amazon Alexa skills and Amazon devices work in the same ways as apps do with smartphones. Apps are downloaded from an app store and then used on a smartphone. Similarly, Amazon Alexa skills can be enabled on the Alexa app and then used on your Alexa device.

My main project was promoting the skills my team had made. This promotion was aimed at external audiences but also internal audiences. It’s important to promote internally, so people know what the team is up to and also so teams who have a use case for Voice know who to come to.


Science blog flash briefing skill

The Cancer Research UK science blog skill works on the Alexa flash briefing. You add your chosen news sources and then ask “Alexa, what's my flash briefing” and Alexa will read out the headlines from the sources you've chosen.
This skill means you can now have the headlines from our science blog featured on your flash briefing. I had the opportunity to write a post for our science blog, which was a great way for me to get to grips with Voice and why we’re looking at it. And after we published the post we found an increase in the amount of people using the skill.


My alcohol tracker

I was lucky to also work on launching the ‘My Alcohol Tracker’ voice skill. You can read more about this skill here. This skill lets you keep track of how much alcohol you’re drinking and aims to raise the awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer. This particular skill was made in partnership with three different teams across the charity, which was a great opportunity for me to meet people in different areas of the business.

I also got involved with the PR team to help launch the skill and they suggested that to increase the chance of the press release getting media attention we could produce a promotional video. We filmed in our Stevenage Superstore with our customers’ reactions. You can view the result here.

The video helped us to launch the skill successfully and a number of media outlets picked it up, most notably The Huffington Post and Vice. It was also watched on CRUK’s Facebook page over 27,000 times.


To sum it up

Working with so many people across these projects was a great opportunity to learn about innovation. You don’t need to have innovation in your job title to innovate and Cancer Research UK has a fantastic progressive attitude that allows innovation to thrive. I look forward to applying what I’ve learnt about innovation in my next role and I am excited to see what the Digital Innovation Team will produce in the coming months.

There are 3 internship cohorts a year and the applications for the summer intake open in March and April. And there's more information on our website if you're interested.

Amelia Hammond

Digital Innovation Intern

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Our digital transformation - 2 years in

It’s been 2 years since we began the hub and spoke model to start Cancer Research UK on the road to digital mastery. Our aim was to stop the central Digital team being just another service team that acted as gatekeepers to change anything on the website. We adapted our operating model, so the next time a team approached Digital saying “I want to change this”, we said “rather than do it for you, we’re going to do it with you. Then afterwards you can do it yourself”.

The idea is that this empowers teams to make their own changes, and leaves the digital team free to focus on higher value activities like engineering and UX. The organisation would then be in a better position to deliver initiatives and technologies towards the fight to beat cancer sooner.

The hub and spoke model was adopted to be the mechanism to help us become digital masters. I, along with one other colleague, went into a secondment in a new role called a ‘proposition manager’ to test it all out. This was back in October 2015. We had a ‘spoke’ each, and the proposition manager joined with someone from the area of the charity who requested the spoke, who took on the role of ‘business owner’. The proposition manager and business owner decided on what they were going to deliver during the time they had together. The first time doing this was successful, and so it continued.

It’s now been my amazing job to be part of this for 2 years, and we’ve come a long way in that time. Here’s some of the biggest changes, and the biggest lessons.

You have to have buy in at every level

The model was signed off. We had a team of proposition managers. We had an initial list of teams that had things they wanted to achieve. But when we got to working with those teams, they didn’t know they’d be working in partnership with us (not just giving us requirements), that they had to give 50% of their time, and that we were training them up as we went. So we spent the first 6 months explaining the plan at different levels, rather than executing it. Now, you can speak to most members of staff and they’ll know what a spoke is. They’re excited about getting more ownership of their digital experiences. And they’re experimenting without much input from us.

There’s no rules to a spoke

The only rule of a spoke is there are no rules. Each team is different, has different remits, is made up of different roles, and has different needs. So each spoke is going to be different. There’s no set structure for how they should run, and the team can work to figure it out together. There’s also no set type for roles that need to be in them. Some need a content strategist, UX designer, developer, and every specialist from the hub. Some just need a proposition manager, a digital producer and the business owner with some light touch support further down the line. And it’s ok that all the spokes don’t match. We know that now.

It’s not just about editing the CMS or checking Google Analytics

Digital Transformation means many things to many people (or organisations). For us, it’s a little about the technology, but a lot more about the skills teams have. We learnt very quickly those skills needed to be different for every team. Some would need to set up complex A/B tests, some needed to write user stories in BDD format, and some had to optimize their content for search.

But all those teams needed to be exposed to a ‘digital mindset’ that doesn’t just apply to digital. We’ve written before about how we define a digital mindset. When it comes to linking this mindset to delivery we helped teams recognise that every idea is an assumption that needs testing (with set success criteria). And, once you have the results of your test you can learn and iterate accordingly. This test and learn approach can benefit any person, any team, and any place of work.

3 months for a spoke is best

Although there isn’t set rules, we did find that, in terms of timings, 3 months is about right. It’s long enough for a team to come together and say “what is the value we are trying to deliver to our users?”, short enough to mean there’s a drive in momentum, and not too long so that time drags on without anything being done.

Value needs to be added

Digital transformation doesn’t happen overnight. Some of our early spokes took 8 months to unpick an idea and articulate it in a user centric way, rather than as a business centric, delivery focused idea. Now, we say that the team needs to come to us knowing where they are trying to add value. The finer details like KPIs can be set at the beginning of a spoke.

What's next?

Two years on, and great swathes of the organisation has had a spoke. Some have had 3 or 4, and won’t need more going forward. Many of these teams are springing up their own digital hubs, consisting of generalists at different levels. New ideas are being given the test and learn treatment. Stand ups and huddles happen at desks across the open plan floors every morning. And there’s a shift in the language used - agile isn’t just a buzzword, and experiments aren’t something just our researchers do.

Now we’re busy working on what the next stage of the model looks like. And that’s really exciting. But before we do that it’s nice to take a moment and reflect on just how much the whole organisation has achieved in their journey towards digital mastery.

Ellie Budd
Digital Proposition Manager

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Mastering Digital wizardry – A Business Owner’s Perspective

Since I joined Cancer Research UK 3 years ago there’s been lots of conversations going back and forth between teams about the performance and layout of the volunteering pages on our website. I sat in lots of meetings where we talked about what we wanted to achieve, and the feedback we had from volunteers to back up the need for change. But we didn’t have the resource to move forwards our requests. But then in 2016 a mythical beast called ’the spoke’ happened and suddenly things began to change.
We first saw the spoke as a magical wand we could point in the direction of all of our previous development requests to Digital and  use to banish them – bish, bash, bosh! But actually, the digital hub and spoke model was much more about developing the team’s skills and knowledge so that we could handle those requests ourselves in the future. So it didn’t take long with our Proposition Manager, Rob, to bring us back to reality about what we were actually going to achieve during the 3 months we’d be working together.
It turned out our magical wand was in fact lots of helpful wizards:
Rob – Head Wizard (Proposition Manager) who was going to teach me everything digital (how to edit pages, build forms, run a/b tests, usability testing and most importantly to be able to write clear business cases and to articulate value for future development requests that are needed).
Becky – Training Wizard (Digital Producer) who spent time showing me how to set up lots of A/B tests using Optimizely so that I was able to do this on my own.
David – Technical Wizard (Developer) who was there to build things that we couldn’t do ourselves, like our brand new search function.

What happened during the Spoke?

During the Spoke we focused on how we can recruit more volunteers in 3 key areas: shop volunteers, event volunteers and skilled volunteers. Shop volunteers represent two thirds of the total hours worked in our shops, so they’re crucial for shops to run successfully. Event volunteers donate their time every year to support thousands of participants who walk, run, trek and cycle to raise thousands of pounds for our life-saving research. While skilled volunteers come into our offices and use skills such as photography, graphic design, and project management to add real value throughout the organisation.
We spent about a month working through KPIs to figure out where we could have the biggest impact. This helped us understand the impact of each new volunteer to the organisation, something we hadn’t really considered before. From this, our main focus was on recruiting shop volunteers and we realised that the easiest way to increase the impact of these volunteers  was to increase the number of people who completed an application form and then went on to actually volunteer with us. We managed to increase the number of people volunteering with us by 20% by the end of the project and it’s still a key area for the business at the moment.
With skilled volunteers one of the biggest challenges we had was around opportunities within the business. Although there’s a huge appetite from people to do skilled volunteering, there just aren’t enough roles for them at the moment. The team are looking at new ideas for increasing the number of highly skilled volunteering opportunities within the organisation by focusing on engaging internal staff to make more people aware that this is a resource that’s available to them.
With event volunteering we had less time to spend on this during the spoke, but we’re continuing to run tests to help us drive volunteer numbers.  One particularly successful test we ran was to cross-sell event volunteering opportunities on different volunteer application forms, which saw about 12% of people signing up for other events.

What’s happened since the spoke?

After my 3 month intensive course in digital wizardry I’m starting to put my new skills to the test. A new role was created in our team to focus on all the things that we didn’t get to cover in the spoke – like looking at our volunteering data and the experience for volunteers post-sign up.

What have we learnt?

What’s in a name?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently with the arrival of a new mini me due at some point in October. This one has definitely come into question when I took on my new role within our team. My title was  ‘Digital Product Owner’ which caused a lot of confusion in the Digital team, as they thought it meant we’d be building a brand new platform for volunteers, when essentially we’re reviewing and improving what we have in place. So if you’re going to adopt a similar role within your team it’s important to iron out the name first to avoid any confusion.

How much extra resource do you need?

My new found wizardry skills mean that although I can test a lot of things on the site and write successful business cases, there’s still competition from the rest of the business when it comes to resource for development. As a wizard you need to learn to have patience and to realise that things can take a while to move forwards. From a business perspective when training up lots of extra digital wizards, it’s worth thinking about the knock on effect for other areas of the business and about where future investment could be needed.

Surely everyone wants to be a wizard, right?

Remember that not everyone within your team will have an interest in digital, and that’s fine. So invest your time teaching and supporting the people who do, as this will be far more beneficial for both you and them.

Getting to know other wizards

There’s a lot of people within the Digital team. I didn’t realise how many wizards there are that keep our webpages up and running and moving forwards. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my new role is that I’ve got to meet so many people within the business in the last 5 months. It’s great to understand what other projects are happening and to work out where we can all work together

What’s happening next?

In early October, we’ve got a new project starting where we’re going to be focusing on our volunteering data. A lot of our data is stored in separate databases which can mean teams are unclear of the processes they need to follow. We’re going to be working to understand what the needs are within the business and to look at how we improve this moving forwards.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Making the move to agile ways of working

Starting at Cancer Research UK over 10 months ago, I had no idea what it meant to work in an agile environment. In all honesty, when I first heard the word agile, it conjured up images of sprightly employees making their way across the office, leaping through the air, before twisting and twirling into their designated meeting rooms. 


Realising I probably wasn’t quite grasping the concept, I decided to do some reading up before my first day. Article upon article told me that agile ways of working had sprung from thinking of new ways to manage software development projects which resulted in the creation of the ‘Agile Manifesto’. Surprisingly, unless someone was going to quiz me on the origins of agile, this didn’t really help me a great deal.  

There was only one thing for it, to get stuck in and learn as I went along. And that’s what I did. 

You won't have a clue what anyone is talking about...


… well for a few days (or weeks) at least.

‘So you’re used to waterfall ways of working then?’
‘Quick, it’s time for stand-up.’
Have you added it to the Trello board?’
'Are you working in Kanban or Scrum?’

Huh?!

As with any job you come into new, you soon realise that all the acronyms, jargon and technical terms that people throw around, are all just fancy words for something that’s not actually that complicated to get your head around.

Once you experience the tools, meeting and methods in practice, it all becomes a lot clearer and you soon get into the swing of things. And of course, when things don’t make sense, there’s always someone more than happy to explain it to you!

Your first stand-up will probably be a bit unnerving...


Stand-ups are a chance, usually once a day, for the whole team to meet for a quick status update and take place standing up (hence the name.)

My first stand-up experience, for want of a better word, was slightly unsettling. As each member of the circle declared to the group what they had worked on the day before and what they were planning to do the next, my turn crept closer and closer. As all eyes fell on me, two thoughts crossed my mind: 

  1. Why is everyone so happy to let everyone know what they’re working on?
  2.  I’ve not actually been here that long yet. What the hell am I going to say?!

First my defensive side came out. I was very much used to just getting on with a task and then delivering it and found the thought of sharing what I was working on very uncomfortable. Why did everyone else need to know? Why does it matter to them?

Then my self-conscious side came out. What if they thought I wasn’t doing enough? What if I worked on a different project the day before and hadn’t anything to say the team whose eyes were now fixed on me?

What I soon learnt was that stand-ups aren’t there as a forum for people to judge each other’s workload. Stand-ups are in fact a great way to keep things moving. Instead of just putting your head down and plodding away at a task until it’s finished, stand-ups give you the opportunity to air any concerns or barriers you may face, and allow you to quickly and honestly tackle them together as a team. 

You don't know your user as well as you think you do...


I’m by no means a stranger to putting the hours into researching what users wanted from their content. Pulling stats, numbers and data from various tools and reports. But one thing that I wasn’t used to, was taking the time to stop and actually listen to the users themselves.

My first experience of user testing was fascinating. Sitting in the usability lab, watching from a separate room through a live feed, I was able to watch real people interacting with pages on our site in real-time. Where some elements worked well, some aspects of the page, that as a team we’d assumed were obvious and easy to use or understand, saw the users struggling.

Agile is about responding to change. It’s too late to wait till the end of a project to ask for feedback, only to find what you’ve produced isn’t quite right. It’s about testing and listening to your users throughout the entire process. 

Taking our observations from usability testing, we were able to respond and implement the changes moving forward. The end result? You’re left with something that actually makes sense and works for your users.

For me now, users are not just an abstract concept. They’re real people, with real insights. So why not make the most of that?


Moving to a completely new way of working is always daunting and is almost always going to generate some scepticism.  But from my experience of working in agile, the benefits seem obvious. Put your users first, work together as a team, respond to change. Immerse yourself in these principles and you’ll be an agile advocate in no time. 

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

10 top tips for awesome remote usability testing


Usability testing is fundamental to how we do digital projects at Cancer Research UK, helping us get to our ambitious target that by 2034, 3 in 4 by people diagnosed with cancer will survive. Testing our ideas out early and often on the people who use our products and services means we save a lot of time and money and give our users what they need in the most intuitive way possible.

We do all sorts of different types of testing (A/b testing, guerilla testing and lab testing to name a few!). But what about if you don’t have the time or budget to meet people face-to-face? That’s where remote usability testing comes in. With remote usability testing, you can share what you're testing with people who are in different locations to you and ask them questions about it. It’s a great way to talk to people who may not have the time to come in to talk to you. And it means you can speak to people that don’t just live near where you work. As a national charity, this is especially important to us at Cancer Research UK.

We recently did some remote usability testing on a new version of our publications website, which allows health professionals to order leaflets and other resources to help educate the public about cancer.
Here are 10 top tips that helped us run a great session:

1. Assemble an ace team



User testing is a team sport so it’s useful to get a small team of people together to help organise all the tasks you’ll need to do. Our team included me (UX designer), Hayley (Product manager) and Becky (Digital producer). We were all quite flexible in the tasks we picked up and all very willing to get stuck in!

2. Know your research goals

Before you start, it’s important to work out what you want to get out of your testing. For this session we wanted to know more about our users, and see if they could complete specific tasks when ordering resources. From these research goals we created a list of questions about the participant’s day-to-day working lives and some more specific task-based questions where we asked participants to use a prototype of the new website and tested out whether they could use it. 

3. Recruit the right people

This is really important for getting meaningful results. Luckily we had a list of active users from the old website who had already signed up to hear from us. So we emailed them to ask if they’d  be willing to help us improve the new site. A few people responded, so we were able to get 6 willing participants (6 is usually a good number to aim for, enough to start seeing patterns without getting too many repetitions). There are lots of other ways to find people though. In other projects we have asked our work colleagues and friends if they know the kinds of people we’re looking for. We’ve also put shout-outs on social media.

4. Write the script

Based on your research goals, you’ll know what you want to get out of the session. Now you can write the questions and tasks that will help you get the answers you need. For each task, think of a goal, the question you will ask and what a successful result looks like. Here’s an example from our session:




5. Do a dry run

Sometimes the questions you’ve written will make total sense on paper, but don’t work out when you ask them on the day. To minimize the risks of this, practice all your questions and tasks out on a member of your team who isn’t too close to the project. This is a great way to find out whether the questions make sense to someone else, and an opportunity to get your timings right.

6. Prepare the tech in advance

This bit is super-important. It’s very easy for a perfectly planned testing session to be cruelly foiled by a dodgy microphone or an out of date screen sharing subscription. For this test we used join.me to share our screens with participants. We made sure we tested both this and our own hardware (computers, microphones etc) out the day before we did the real thing.  

7. Meet with the team to make sure everyone knows their roles

Once you’ve assembled your team, make sure everyone understands their roles, both in preparing for the tests and what they’ll do on the day. You’ll need to work out who will be facilitating (asking the questions) and who will be doing the note taking (Pro tip: If possible, the facilitator shouldn't be someone who's been too involved in the design, as this can bias the testing). We used google sheets for note taking, as it’s the easiest way for the whole team to share and add their notes.

8. Invite the whole team along

Invite anyone involved in the project, including your development team and any stakeholders you have. This is incredibly useful as the project progresses so you will have a shared understanding of your users and their challenges.

9. During the session – Don't forget the notes










Now’s the interesting part where you actually get to hear from your users! Make sure the note taker is taking qualitative notes (describing how the person is doing the task) and quantitative (usually a score for each task of between 1-3, based on how easily someone completed the task). Both will be very useful after the session for understanding what the pain points were.

10. After the session – get into the detail

Well done, you made it through all those interviews in one piece. Take a well deserved break, but not for too long. Now’s your opportunity to take stock of what happened. Review the session with your team. Take a look through all your qualitative and quantitative notes and make a list of what can be improved. Don’t leave it too long or you may start to forget what happened in the session.

Remote usability testing – one piece of the testing puzzle

Remote usability testing is a great way of testing out your ideas early and in this project it helped us discover insights we would have never have uncovered otherwise.  But it’s just one of the many tools we use at Cancer Research UK to understand our supporters better, making them happier and helping us beat cancer sooner.