Amateur photography hour: User testing inspired by empanadas

Jun 17 2013

For both teams here at the Reese News Lab Summer Startup, one of our biggest challenges is user testing.

We have good ideas (we like to think), which we have followed with a lot of research and a lot of talking about how we should transform our ideas into a service that can actually be useful to our user.

A good way to test whether customers would like our products is a user test: We create simple versions of our ideas and present them to the people who might one day use them.

This has presented many challenges, as our products are not yet fully developed, and it can be hard to find participants.

For our team of students working on a second-screen product, an additional challenge has been that the product is focused on Spanish speakers, so we have had to find participants who are bilingual or solely Spanish speakers to test the news application.

To do the user testing, we took a trip to the Human Rights Center in Carrboro, N.C., to test the product, called Newsling. It is a second-screen experience designed to accompany a local newscast. It offers a summary in Spanish on users’ smartphones so that they will be able to more easily understand an English-language broadcast.

As a member of the political app team, I went along to document the user testing and to practice my photography skills. The whole experience ended up providing useful data about Newsling while also teaching me photography and empanada-making – and wishing that I spoke Spanish.

After arriving at the Human Rights Center, we set to work making empanadas to thank our participants, who would be arriving shortly. Our empanadas were filled with a turkey, beef and spinach mixture instead of the traditional meat and cheese.

Azul Zapata, our head chef, explained that there was no need to fear: She had been making empanadas since she could reach the table in her home.


She promptly taught all of us the proper way to roll and fill an empanada.


Everyone helped make a fresh salad of avocados, corn, cilantro, tomatoes, olive oil and black pepper.

Simone Duval cuts avocado for a salad at The Human Rights Center. Photo by Lilly Knoepp

While dinner was being made, the children played many different games from computer games and bingo to coloring.


A child demonstrates the value of the second screen: Playing Temple Run while waiting for a computer to log on.

Temple Run

The empanadas came out of the oven golden brown thanks to our head chef, Zapata.

Azul Zapata takes the hot empanadas out of the oven. Photo by Lilly Knoepp

After dinner, the user tests commenced with participants watching a section of an evening newscast in English while looking at the Newsling summary of each story on their smartphones.

During user testing, partipants watched the a newscast while looking at Newsling. Photo by Lilly Knoepp

To summarize our findings, most participants said they wanted more information about each story beyond the bullet points provided, but they appreciated the idea that they would be able to use the application to better receive the news.

“They like the idea of it and they are interested in how it progresses,” Zapata said.

The tests also brought up the idea that users want more local information that is relevant to them. Users also said that an audio translation of the newscast would be helpful.

Zapata has this advice for anyone conducting a user test.

“Be patient,” she said. “You can learn a lot from what they don’t like, what they say they want and what they actually like.”

The data gathered at the user test will allow the team members to continue to improve their product, but it taught me one very important lesson: Users are happy to participate in any exercise when they are properly fed.

All photos by Lilly Knoepp 

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