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User Research – Yes, Talking With Real Users

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User research is an applied research method. Its like being a detective, about seeking the truth, sifting through the facts. Talking with real users can be a reality check, which for most User Experience Designers, is too much for their ego to bear.

Talking to a user should be something like:

  • an afternoon to two days
  • 5-15 people
  • sessions of 30-60 minutes

Clients are resistant to designers talking directly to real users

Looking back, I think that every single client I have ever had, has not wanted me to talk to real users. Here are the normal reasons:

  • too expensive
  • too much time, there’s no time
  • we already know our audience, very well

Well that is one way of looking at it. The truth is that the designer might not know the users. When designing awesome user experience, the user experience designer has to know the user, how else will he be able to have empathy with the users needs.

I have found that most of the time, the client doesn’t fully understand the goals and needs of its customers. Most clients believe in their product and think that by really believing in it, the customers will also believe in it. But most of the time, there is something good about the product, it just needs to deliver inline with the needs and goals of the real user.

Measure twice, cut one (yes I was a carpenter)

By looking at the needs and goals of real users. By listening to them in real life, in their environment. The user experience designer can then approach the project with the targets and goals confirmed. Most of the time, it is not until the product is released or the months that follows, when user feedback is listened to. I have seen so many clients care about users only after the product launch when the only budget they had left was marketing. In my experience you can never market your way out of a true user experience problem.

How do I find real users?

This is really project / product specific. But here is some ideas to keep in mind.

  • Friends of friends, or contacts of contacts
  • Random on the street
  • Where they congregate
  • Online tools
  • Surveys
  • Screeners
  • Specialist firms

What we are looking for are users or potential users of the product. Using your network, you can reach out on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. You could stand on the street and get random opinions. But my favorite is using tools like meetup, find the real product evangelists and meet them in person.

What do you ask them?

There are many books on interviewing and surveying. Lots are concerned with how the interviewer is biasing the question, or how the question is written, or the environment of the interview. But for the user experience designer, we are simply being Sherlock Holmes.

Behind the truth is the truth. People do one of two things, tell lies or tell their version of the truth. Most of the time, people think about how they can say things which make them seem better. Saying that would do something, or even do something often, when in fact they would not ever take the time or commitment. So we need to be in the background. Listening to the truth when it is released from the group. By being in the users familiar environment, a place where they are comfortable, the users will tell the truth from time to time. As user experience designers we prowl around the edges of the conversations, listening and hoping to capture the true. We should not be prompting the conversations into a desired direction, but questions are allowed. But be careful with a question. If a person is talking about something that they love, and you challenge them with a question they will go on the defensive. But if a person is talking about something they love, and you show interest, they will never be able to stop talking.

Open end questions

A simple yes or no is a failure in user research. All it is doing is confirming the users understanding of the question. What we need to be doing is using open ended questions like.

  • How do you get to work in the morning?
  • When do you use your car?
  • Where do you shop for cloths?

The questions need to be related to the experience the user has had. Asking them to make decisions on design related question is more for focus groups, where opinions can be measured. For now we are only focusing on the users need or goals.

Listen for clues

Rarely will the user be able to define their needs or their goals. Instead listen to what they are telling and not what they are saying. For instance when the user says “I find it hard to find parking outside my sons school”, think how many moms are having the same problem. Or “Its hard to use the phone when taking the dog for a walk” what they mean is its hard to use the application one handed.

Show me

If at all possible, let the user show you the problems they are facing. This will help you to make use cases clearly. See the steps and reasoning behind how they are approaching and attempting to solve a problem.


What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Well what we are really doing is looking at the truth. Opening up the box of users, seeing their problems in context so that:

We can have empathy

Its all about having empathy with your users, the personas in the user groups. We can then make honest reasoning and answer questions from a users perspective. Remember, clients care about business, users care about their goals and their needs. Be careful about interviewing the client  to answer key user needs and be very careful when looking at key user goals.

Here is a link to Steve Krug’s website with some great user research materials for free.

Chris BarklemUser Research – Yes, Talking With Real Users

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