User Research

What is the best way to gather user research?

I believe Dian Fossey is a great role model for how to achieve great results and learn about your users lives.


Dian didn’t ask the gorillas “So, tell me what kind of personality you have?”  Obviously, the gorillas would not have intelligent things to say to Dian.  Rather, she observed these majestic beasts in their natural habitat.  She didn’t put them behind 2-way glass.  She just sat and watched.

Too often, user research about a feature, product or service is conducted with a highly flawed assumption.  Specifically, that people have a good idea of what they want.

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
— Steve Jobs, BusinessWeek, May 25 1998

The reason this is true is because people have two sides of their brain.  The logical, conscious side and the emotional, unconscious, automatic side.  Most of your day, you are using the latter.  It’s hard to use the manual part of your brain for too long.  Most of your decisions are based on automatic responses.  When you buy software or select a vendor, you would be surprised how little your conscious, logical side is used.

When you ask users to “think” about what they want, you are saying, “Don’t use the part of your brain that you actually make decisions with, rather use the other part”.  This is a recipe for disaster.  People can not possibly answer your questions in a truly honest form because the real decision making works differently.

A better way to gather research is to just observe what the user does.  If you show them a screen, watch their reaction, don’t ask for their reaction.  Never, ever ask for suggestions on how to make it better.  Rather ask them to teach you how to do their job.  Learn their world.  Immerse yourself in who they are.  What are their pains?  What are their pleasures?  How long does it take them to do their work?

At the end of the day, you are a designer and they are a user.  Your job is to know how to make their lives better.  You just need to know what their lives are like now.

Empathy is defined as “Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.”  This is the most important aspect of design.

To do your best designs, learn the lives of the people you serve.  Empathize with them.  Then solve their problems.  Don’t ask them for suggestions.  They will only lead you astray.

Whatya think?