UX Research: when the users can’t come to you, you have to go to them

The Springer stall at the ACS Fall Conference

It may seem obvious to those in the field, but it’s worth stating time and again that research is a fundamental part of the user experience work process. Without being able to research with users, you are simply resorting to making a series of assumptions about what your users will want, which can in turn lead to a product which doesn’t address their needs. Even in the case that your company might have performed some market research beforehand to define the direction your product is heading in, without the in-depth insight into the specific details on how the users expect to work with your product, you can end up with a situation where people are interested, but they actually can’t, or don’t like using your product.

It’s because of a similar situation that I’ve spent the past few days at the ACS Fall Conference in Philadelphia, meeting users to discuss their requirements. Due to the fact that my company can’t put me in direct contact with users, due to complications with the selling process, I therefore have to make sure I go to find people who use our product, to collect feedback, understand success and pain points they experience, and justify assumptions we’re making in the production process.

In order to suit the format of the conference, we set up a pre-registration form for users to contact us before the event, and book out times when they would be available to talk to us. We then distilled down the questions we need to ask to key questions, taking roughly 15 to 20 minutes to ask and discuss in total, so that we could keep the sessions short, in case people had other appointments to keep. Of course, adaptation is key here, and we often found that the users we interviewed had more time than we expected, so we had backup questions to ask in that eventuality. In quiet periods, we would also ask people who hadn’t used the product for their opinions, which often meant skewing the questions to suit someone who hadn’t seen the software beforehand, and, of course, we had to prepare for the unexpected; one or two people we interviewed had different uses for the software, or came from a different background, so we had to work on the fly to ensure that we asked the right questions to get useful feedback from them. Above all, make sure that you have everything ready for the sessions – any visual aids are there, such as sketches and flat designs, or that you’re signed in to the site¬†so that you don’t hit paywalls in the middle of demonstrations during sessions. Ensuring things go as smoothly as possible will ensure that the conversation concentrates on the feedback, rather than waiting for things to load, or having to apologise for the lack of a key visual.

All in all, this approach has proved to be very successful – the quick-fire interviews provided a wealth of information, opinion and feedback, which will become key points for some important changes in our website. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re not supplied users, I recommend you take a similar approach¬†and make sure you get out to meet them, in whatever way you can.

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