Designing from the outside, looking in.

Alexandre Plennevaux
5 min readMay 31, 2017


To look is to learn, if you listen carefully.” — Per Arnold

At Base, we share the belief that the best way to grow as designers is to be out there, with our users, IRL. Easier said than done, yet rewarding and totally worth the trouble.

Last November, Thomas and I went to Graanmarkt 13 in Antwerp to perform onsite usability testing at a very early stage in the design process, which was a first time for me. In this case, the subject of testing was a mid-fidelity prototype of the upcoming website on a mobile device.

We wanted to detect potential usability issues that could hurt the core business objectives of the project. We also needed to validate the content architecture by detecting if it raised any way-finding issues.

Here is a screenshot of the prototype:

High-fidelity prototype in html, css and javascript (with a zest of localStorage for good manners).

Tim and Ilse

Graanmarkt 13 is a special place that combines a high-end concept store, a restaurant and a Bed & Breakfast. The place is really special because Tim and Ilse (the owners) really go the extra mile so that every person who enters the building feels special and welcomed. Be it a customer, a provider or… a web designer.

Graanmarkt 13 hosts a restaurant, a B&B and a high-end store.

Hunters and Acrobats

So, we had to make sure our test setup didn’t interfere with that. A few regular customers were invited beforehand while others were recruited on the spot by our host. Eventually, we had eleven persons representing the target audience. They were mostly women. Interestingly, they showed two different behavioral patterns for finding their way around the interface.

The first pattern showed a reckless way of using the interface, moving very quickly from a page to another, not unlike acrobats. They generally had no issues with the prototype whatsoever.

The second one, from presumably pre-internet era folks, followed way-finding strategies that are much more methodological and cautious, like hunters. Looking around for clues, moving forward then backwards on the same trail, looking for information scent, paying much more attention to the wording. These were the participants we learned the most from.

Avoiding bias

Each participant was presented about a dozen tasks to complete. Each task was carefully phrased so as not to bias the participant’s response. For example, here is a question aimed at the Apartment section of the site: “You’ve learned from an article in a local paper about a B&B at Graanmarkt 13 and would like to read more about it and check its price”. This allowed us to check whether “Apartment”, the label we used in the website menu, is semantically close enough to the audience’s mental model of a B&B.

The tests

Generally, most people did not have any problem achieving the tasks at hand, but one specific task did not go so well:

“Say you bought a piece of clothing as a present for your teenage daughter… only for her to find out it is too thin! Well done, mum. Of course, now, you need to return it and get your money back, or perhaps exchange it. What would you do in this situation? Please navigate to where on the Graanmarkt 13 website you would expect the information to be located.”

A miserable experience, but oh, so real and common in the age of e-commerce.

Designer, let me ask you: honestly, where would you have put the instructions on “how to return a purchase and get a refund” ?

In the footer, right? Well, that’s what we did. That piece of information did not sustain our main storyline, so we considered it to be noise and not signal. Besides, we usually want to avoid introducing the idea of failure to someone we just met, right?

We did not want to be too frontal with “returnals” as we assumed it would be a negative message, so moved it to the footer.


None of the participants went to the page dedicated to returns and refunds. Everyone headed to the Contact page. Embarrassing.

From the people’s reactions we realized we had added more frustration to the already negative experience of having bought the wrong product. The brand was hurting.

Participants expected the information to be on the Contact page, because, as we realized, to contact the store is the natural thing to do in this situation. They wanted to call, complain and obtain a refund.

Moreover, how could they know the site listed that piece of information in the first place?

And so, each participant rapidly gave up the hunt. The game was lost.

A fix

At lunch break, we polyfilled the crack in the experience. We improved the copy with an inviting link to the refund instructions on the contact page, right where everyone expected it, as we had now found out.

The Contact page, before and after the quick fix.

We tested the fix in the afternoon: everyone completed the task directly, without hesitation. Some reactions were even like “oh, easy! Nice.” Moreover, the matter-of-fact, honest tone of voice conveyed the true intention of Graanmarkt 13: be helpful, honest and human.

As a result, people came out of the awkward situation with a reinvigorated appreciation for the brand. A happy-ending to a story that started off on the wrong foot.


This is but one of many benefits we reaped from doing usability testing. Less expectedly, usability testing enabled us to catch the emotional impact of our decisions and fix them directly in a way that would have never happened had we kept on designing in our vacuum, from the inside looking out, instead of the outside, looking in. It proved the point to ourselves and to the entire Base team that usability testing should not be an option but a core methodology in our design process.

I am sure famous Art Nouveau architect Eliel Saarinen would agree:

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

In my opinion, usability testing points straight at the heart of design. It underlines Base’s core belief: We don’t design for designers. We design for people.

This experience also underlines the fact that there are no “details”. The details are the design. A brand’s substance perspires in the experiences it provides, no matter how big or small. Even more so when the experience fails.

Make sure to read about the design process behind this project from the perspective of its lead designer and the benefits of a content-first approach to design.

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Alexandre Plennevaux

Belgian UX designer / web developer / teacher. Favorite word: ideation