‘Drunk user testing’ mixes cocktails and coding

Jenn Leibig of Boston (left) tests software at the Wistia booth as product designer Maddie Simens (center) and director of product Management Jebb Vincent look on.
Jenn Leibig of Boston (left) tests software at the Wistia booth as product designer Maddie Simens (center) and director of product Management Jebb Vincent look on.

Amos Berger, drink in hand and shouting to be heard over the thumping sound system, is gesturing at the screen as he offers an impromptu design critique. He’s just discovered that he can scroll down further on the website of Help Scout, a Boston-based help desk system, than he had previously believed.

“It’s like in Zelda, where you blow up a wall with a bomb and there’s a whole other room behind it,” said Berger, a graduate student in Bentley University’s Human Factors in Information Design program. “Man, I love doing this drunk.”

“I see it,” said Help Scout’s Mo McKibbon, nodding and scribbling notes on a pad.

Wednesday night’s event, billed as Drunk User Testing, played on the tongue-in-cheek idiom among designers that an interface should be designed as though the user were intoxicated — easy to use and difficult to break. True to its name, there’s a party atmosphere, with free beer and wine, loud music and large silver helium balloons, tethered to the floor, in the shape of the letters “U” and “X,” for “user experience.”

But throughout the event, which has attracted a crowd of nearly 150, company representatives like McKibbon are camped out at tables with ThinkPads, MacBooks, and egg timers, hoping to solicit uninhibited input from the increasingly boisterous crowd.

“It’s always difficult but rewarding to get user feedback,” said Jackson Noel, who organized tonight’s event. “And there’s no better time than after a couple cocktails.”

The idea for the gathering occurred to Noel, a co-founder of the Cambridge  startup Appcues, after he watched a series of web videos by Cambridge-based developer Richard Littauer called “The User is Drunk.” For $250, Littauer writes, he will “get very drunk, and then review your website.” He’s uploaded videos for dozens of companies including HomeAway, ZenMarket, and Gizmodo.

Littauer’s rowdy, wandering videos stand in contrast to conventional user interface testing, which often takes place in formal, one-on-one sessions with prospective or current users. Noel decided to test whether Littauer’s fuzzy-thinking technique would work in a group setting — and to simultaneously gather input from friends and colleagues outside the design bubble.

“Having a nontechnical user perspective can be the best case for interface testing,” he said.

Mo McKibbon (left), customer champion at Help Scout, takes notes as  Amos Berger of Somerville (center) and Thanh V. Nguyen, of Arlington, give feedback.Mo McKibbon (left), customer champion at Help Scout, takes notes as Amos Berger of Somerville (center) and Thanh V. Nguyen, of Arlington, give feedback. Credit: Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe.

To organize the event, he teamed up with Rachel Decker, a senior user experience researcher at marketing software maker HubSpot, which has an office in the same Cambridge building as Appcues, which builds software to help companies sign up new customers for their apps and sites.

“It’ll be much less controlled,” Decker said with a laugh, a week before the event. “I would hope they can get some good feedback. You start to see patterns.”

The pair rounded up collaborators from the Boston startup scene to run stations at the event. The list eventually grew to include Help Scout, HourlyNerd, Klaviyo, Fresh Tilled Soil, and Wistia, which hosted the party at its brick-walled office on Tudor Street. Noel and Decker’s employers, Appcues and Hubspot, also set up stations to gather input from revelers.

“We got a ton of awesome feedback for HubSpot’s Website Grader,” said Decker, who compiled the drinkers’ input into a spreadsheet she plans to share with the designer and developer. “Even though people at an event might not be the target market for this site in real life, we still got a ton of actionable feedback from people outside of HubSpot.”

Wistia Customer Happiness Team members, from left, Gordie Smith, Jordan Munson, and Mat Cronin(cq) gather by one of the software demonstrations at a software testing party hosted by Wistia, to test the axiom that software developers should "design like the user is drunk". Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe (Business,  )Wistia Customer Happiness Team members (from left) Gordie Smith, Jordan Munson, and Mat Cronin gather by one of the software demonstrations at a software testing party hosted by Wistia. Credit: Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe.

As the evening wore on, some developers seemed a little overwhelmed by the crowd’s enthusiasm. Others took it in stride, jotting down ideas and showing testers potential future designs.

“It’s not often that you get a firehose of diverse feedback so it was great to hear enough opinions to identify clear themes,” said Ojus Patil, a growth and analytics product manager at HourlyNerd, a Boston-based marketplace for consultants. “It is worth noting that the testers approached the site with very different intentions — and inebriation levels, towards the end of the night.”

Back at the Help Scout table, Berger pulled up a promotional clip but loses focus when he recognizes an employee in the video.

“I know that guy!” he said, pulling out his phone and displaying the employee’s Instagram account. “I know his wife.”

“Sure,” McKibbon repliee.

“Sorry, I’ll concentrate now,” Berger said.

(From left) Web designer Celia Ho talks with Wistia Customer Happiness team members Camille Barichello, Gordie Smith, Jordan Munson, and Mat Cronin.(From left) Web designer Celia Ho talks with Wistia Customer Happiness team members Camille Barichello, Gordie Smith, Jordan Munson, and Mat Cronin. Credit: Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe.