7NKA8IA3_1358907533777In a crowded conference room of a New York coworking space, two founders hovered over an iPhone. “So, do you know what to do with this?” one asked the other.

Long pause.

“No.”

“Okay. What’s not clear?”

“Um, where do I begin?”

They exchange awkward glances. The UI of the app they were testing needed a little work. That’s okay. That’s why they’re here. It was the third installment of The Test Tube, a sort of product advice group. At the free event, techies demo each other’s in-development apps and websites with as little oversight from the creator as possible. Then they offer feedback. After six minutes demoing each person’s app, a Nintendo buzzer plays, and the founders move on to a new match-up.

It’s like speed dating, for usability testing.

Test Tube was started a few months back by two WeWork labs members, Tom Weingarten of Delve and Pierre Wooldridge of CouponsatCheckout. They started the project when they noticed the shortcomings of existing feedback events involving presentations with panelists of design experts. When given advice and criticism in front of a crowd, founders would try to defend their design choices to save face, which isn’t particularly productive or fun to listen to. Weingarten and Wooldridge wanted something more akin to a real life focus group of people who’d be potential users of the app, not design experts. And they realized many startups needed that sort of feedback. That’s why we bloggers get as many emails asking for “feedback” as we do pitches to write a story.

Today, while observing the Test Tube conversations, I realized why I never know how to respond to emails requesting generic “feedback.” Simply asking someone “What do you think?” about a product will not elicit a worthwhile answer. The askee wants to be nice. I’m probably more cynical than most and I find it nearly impossible to tell someone that I don’t like the project they’ve poured their life into. Beyond that, what kind of feedback do they actually want? It’s the difference between asking “Do you like my shirt?” (the answer will always be “yes!”) and asking “Would you wear a shirt like this? Where? How often? Do you like the color? The texture? The pattern? The branding? The fit? The trim?”

Test Tube participants are encouraged to show up with a specific feature, function, or question they want answered. It’s important that they are as hands off as possible when their product is being tested. Founders are always eager to demo their own product, but they can learn more from sitting back and letting someone else play with it. They take screen capture videos of the action. Then they grill the tester about what worked, why they did what they did, and what was confusing.

A dating app created by dudes wanted to know if their novel communication tools made sense to users. A news curation app wanted to know if its drop-and-drop functionality required more messaging to understand. And so on. Since the testers are all product people themselves, everyone leaves with thoughtful feedback. It’s a free focus group, and it happens once a month. The group, which started among WeWork members, has expanded each month, arranging groups it such that repeat visitors aren’t matched a second time. Sign up to find out about the next one here.