How to avoid the #1 mistake in user research

“So, you really think we need to talk to them [users]?” – Anonymous client

As a product design firm, Daedalus advocates understanding the users of the products we design and develop. Truly understanding them. Without an accurate and complete understanding of the user, how can a company design a product that will fulfill their users’ needs and solve their problems?

Unfortunately, we’ve often heard new clients ask the question, “So, you really think we need to talk to them [users]?” They are anxious to jump right into designing their product. They rush to the solution space before they truly understand the problem space, driven by the shiny promise of quick bottom-line impact, and they suffer the consequences of their blind haste. It’s a big problem.

Why? Because they think they already know their user. But their knowledge is based on assumptions or anecdotes, customer service logs or sales relationships, and sometimes, even usability testing – sources that are misleading and shallow. Sales relationships and the knowledge gained from them – particularly in B2B – tend to be skewed towards larger or “important” customers. That which is gained from customer service logs reveals only issues that are severe enough to motivate the user to contact the company, overlooking the majority of users. These types of knowledge result in adequate products – ones that allow the user to accomplish an objective – but the means to do so is confusing, resulting in so-called user error.

Even usability testing, as valuable and worthwhile as it is, provides only knowledge gleaned from a highly structured set of tasks that are conducted out of context. So while usability testing can produce a good product, is a good product good enough? Consider the relative success of the Apple iPod to the Microsoft Zune. Both allowed users to download and listen to music; yet one obviously succeeded in delighting and engaging the user in a way the other was unable to do, a way that compelled users to tell their friends about the experience, thereby increasing the product’s popularity.

Truly understanding users’ needs and desires requires robust engagement with the user through ethnographic research in the form of structured interviews and observations. Without this type of engagement, you risk creating a (perfectly usable) product that fails to meet the unvoiced needs and desires of your users. It may meet expectations, but rarely exceeds them, and is quickly forgotten. Engaging the user allows you to understand the problems the user is striving to solve and the barriers in the way – including those unrecognized by the user. It allows you to understand impact that a product will have on the user’s life, both positive and negative. It identifies and explores the user’s goals – those willingly shared with a company and those the user cannot or will not articulate.

But of course, understanding the user is not enough; the user’s experience exceeds the user. Ethnographic research allows you to understand the user’s environment and how it, and artifacts within it, affect frustrations and goals. It identifies other stakeholders (even for products typically used in isolation) and scenarios of use (particularly unanticipated ones) that will impact how your product is used and the experience of using it. And ethnography allows a company to discover user-driven innovations – your user may have already solved a problem or may have pushed your product beyond the boundaries you expected.

The knowledge that leads to break-away and break-through products isn’t found in the lab or in customer service and sales logs, and it isn’t found in the assumptions held by management. It is only found through meaningful, rich, detailed, engagement with the users – the people who ultimately determine whether your product succeeds or fails.

Carolynn Johnson

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