Reduce Noise In Your Work By Using The “Mom Test”


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Communication is a process.

Part of this process is noise, which can be defined as essentially any type of disruption that interferes with the transmission or interpretation of a message. Noise is present throughout the whole process, from when the message is made to when the message is received.

Imagine someone writing a note on an island, putting it in the water and floating it off to sea. Noise, in this situation, can be anything that alters the meaning of the message, including that person’s poor handwriting, a sea monster who cracks the bottle open, or the inability of the person who receives the message to read. The point is, noise is everywhere. And it's not easy to get rid of.

As designers, it’s our job to reduce (ideally, eliminate) noise in the communication process. In design, noise could be a font that’s too small to read, a layout that doesn’t give strong visual direction or the fact that the person using your interface has a headache and can’t concentrate.

There are many ways to test how well we’re eliminating noise, including user interviews, surveys, analytics, the list goes on and on. But one of the best ways I’ve found to test the amount of noise in my design work is what I call the “Mom Test.”

What is the “Mom Test?”

The "test" is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It typically starts with me asking my mom if she has a minute to look something I’m working on. Without giving her any explanation or context, I hand her a screen, piece of paper, or whatever contains my design work.

This part (not giving her any explanation or context) is very important. Unless you’ll be standing next to everyone who uses the interface you’re designing or who sees the ad you’re working on, you need someone seeing it without any explanation or help from you to get real, meaningful feedback.

If I give my mom an ad, I typically let her look at it for about 20 seconds, then I take it back and ask about what it was. If it’s an interface, I ask her how she would perform a task. If it’s branding or marketing materials, I let her look at it for about 20 seconds and ask her what she sees.

I try to be as open-ended as possible with my questions in order to avoid leading her to the answers that I want to hear. There’s no use getting her feedback if I’m directing her to give me all the right answers.

What’s the point?

Let’s start with first part: Why use my mom for a test? She doesn’t always represent the target demographic of what I’m working one. She’s not a designer or UX researcher. What makes her such a good resource?     

If you can make something simple enough for your mom to understand, there’s a good chance most other people can understand it too.                                                                

For starters, she and I are almost opposites as far as demographics go. I’m a 20-something designer who is more technologically literate than most of my peers, I started my own company and I can’t stand peanut butter (seriously, it’s on my list of foods to avoid at all costs). She, on the other hand, is part of an older generation (she probably wouldn’t appreciate me sharing her age) that’s known for being later adopters of technology, she works in education and she loves peanut butter more than most foods.

Though she may not be just like the people I’m designing for, she has a very different perspective than I do. She interprets things differently than I do, and she has different expectations of user interfaces than I do.

I don’t have to always use my mom for this test either. There a plenty of people I know who are part of a different generation than me, have a different background and skill set than me, and who I know will be honest with me about their feedback. The point is to get feedback from someone who perceives things differently from you.

I often find where a lot of noise in my designs are by doing this quick test, but it’s not the only testing you should do. I not only do this test with my mom, I also do this with friends, colleagues and other family members.

You can’t get accurate feedback by only testing your work with one person. You still need to find people who fit your target demographic and test it with them. And you need to test with multiple people. The more people you get feedback from, the more you begin to see patterns in their feedback and can really hone in where the problems are in your work.

If you take away one thing from this post, let it be this: If you can make something simple enough for your mom to understand, there’s a good chance most other people can understand it too.