Subject-Matter Experts: Putting Users at the Center of the Design Process

Insights from Research

Walking in your customers’ shoes

February 7, 2011

This month we’ll discuss the process of putting users at the center of the design process and what that means in regard to both design and product strategy. We’ll also discuss some different approaches to a user-centered design process that we’ve come across and outline their positives and negatives. Finally, we’ll outline the steps necessary to make user-centered design a reality and how to get the most out of a user-centered design process when working on different types of products. The insights we gain from interacting directly with users are invaluable. They can assist us greatly throughout the product development process and ensure user adoption.

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Why Users Matter

Knowing our users is everything—without them, we’d have no one in mind to design for and few would purchase our products. When we design a product to meet a market need, we’re addressing the problems, concerns, or desires of people who would use it on a regular basis. To meet a market need, we need to understand what our users need and how to design for them. The primary principle of user-centered design is that users guide our understanding of how they’ll use a product, ensuring a product properly meets the need of its user population. If at any point, a product’s design begins to stray from what users need and becomes something different, the outcome could be failure in the marketplace.

Here’s an example: In the 1950s, Betty Crocker decided they would start producing cake mixes with powdered eggs, so housewives could save time when baking. Their market research indicated having products that would speed up the process of making a cake would be helpful to the average housewife. But Betty Crocker did not recognize a major problem in their new approach. Apparently, housewives were hesitant to purchase these cake mixes because they felt guilty about the lack of effort necessary to prepare the cakes. As a result, their sales were poor. Betty Crocker eventually discovered this problem with the help of psychologists and changed the process, requiring housewives to add eggs to the batter to make a cake. This change in the process of making a cake from a mix gave housewives a sense of having contributed some effort and eventually helped increase sales.

This story raises a question: If Betty Crocker had placed their users at the center of their product design process, would they have noticed this problem early on?

User-Centered Research Strategies

Having had the opportunity to work with many design teams over the last decade, we’ve been able to test and evaluate various methods of gaining insights from users. There are three research strategies we typically see when working with clients: interviews, field observations, and users’ full integration into a design process as subject-matter experts.

Expert interviews are very common and, typically, the simplest way to understand your user population at a more intimate level when you need design input. Expert interviews are extremely valuable because they present an opportunity for you to ask targeted questions regarding users’ routines, needs, desires, and struggles. Such interviews typically include behavioral routines and subjective feedback on currently available solutions versus new design ideas. The downfall of this approach is that it involves self-reporting. What people say is not always what they do. We have a saying at our office: “behavior never lies.” Expert interviews do not let you evaluate behavior.

Field observations—AKA ethnographies—are not as common, because of their cost, but offer an extremely effective approach to observing the behavior of users. In this approach, both a researcher and a designer can spend time observing users within the context of their own environment—at work, at school, or at home—record user behaviors, and ask questions that guide them to a better understanding of how to design a product. Field observations are effective primarily because of the volume of objective data they let you gather. But the challenge with this approach is just that: the volume of data that you gather. It takes a team of people to sift through the data and make sense of it—and, if your team does not do this properly, that data can lead you down the wrong path.

Working with Subject-Matter Experts

Fully integrating users into a design process is rarer, but this is a very powerful approach when you use it appropriately. This approach involves employing users as subject-matter experts (SMEs)—people who use your product often and with whom you can interact on a regular basis to get their perspectives on the product’s design. They typically have insights no one else would have. SMEs could be industry specialists such as doctors, lawyers, military personnel, or CEOs. Or, they could be people who customarily follow certain processes or routines—such as parents, foodies, athletes, car enthusiasts, or avid video-game players.

When working with SMEs, it’s important to understand how to evaluate and use the information they provide—thus, ensuring that your product not only meets their needs, but also meets them in a way that encourages these SMEs to continue using your product regularly and incorporate it into their daily routine. The evaluation and use of such information can be tricky, because what SMEs say they need might not translate into what they actually do—something Betty Crocker dealt with, as we described earlier.

Integrating SMEs into your product design process means consulting them frequently, so they can help you shape a product’s direction as it goes through its development lifecycle. You typically see SMEs play an active role on larger projects such as the design of military or medical applications, but sometimes, also on smaller projects with large budgets. There are pros and cons to this approach. While getting input from SMEs helps keep a product’s direction in line with the needs of its target market, there is always risk when only a few people judge the validity of a product. Plus, when SMEs contribute to the design of a product over a long period of time, they may lose their objectivity and provide guidance that is less than optimal.

There are certain techniques researchers apply when gathering data from SMEs to ensure they do not get overwhelmed by seeing bits and pieces of unpolished ideas, leading to confusion. For example, before presenting a design mockup or idea to SMEs, you should have at least one or two product team members—perhaps engineers or researchers—first review it, to ensure there are no glaring problems that would distract the SMEs from the goal of their evaluation. We’ve found that, if you show SMEs each and every bit of your design process, they tend to become overwhelmed and sometimes frustrated by your constant changes in direction. SMEs should serve as guides—to ensure you are on the right track—not moment-by-moment evaluators.

A second technique is very similar to a negotiation tactic automobile sales representatives use: a fresh face makes the sale. It is important, at some point during a project, to bring in a few new SMEs who can offer some fresh perspectives. This does not mean previous SMEs need to leave the project; it just means they should focus on a new aspect of it. We cannot overemphasize the importance of this technique and how much value we have obtained from doing this on our projects. The new perspectives help you fine-tune your ideas and also validate the work you’ve already completed.

Finally, be objective, and take what SMEs tell you—whether verbally or nonverbally—very seriously. We’ve found that, when people get married to their ideas or design concepts, they stop listening to their SMEs. It is important to give structure to your meetings and SME evaluations by defining how SMEs can contribute to product design. We’ve found it’s very helpful to establish these guidelines right away, at the very beginning of a project—as well as to re-evaluate them a few days later. The process of gathering and applying expert feedback is iterative and, although it can be tiring at times, the final product will be better for it.


There are many ways in which to incorporate SME feedback. In this column, we’ve outlined a few of the approaches we’ve seen in our work. The most important thing we’ve learned to do is to listen and be as objective as possible. Sometimes, this is hard to do—especially when SMEs provide feedback that opposes your original assumptions. But as researchers and designers, it is our responsibility to be flexible and do our best to create high-quality products that enhance people’s lives—even if, sometimes, the final product is not what we originally imagined.

Going back to our Betty Crocker example, we’re not sure whether bringing a housewife into the center of the design process would have exposed the problem they faced; guilt is a difficult emotion to communicate. But we do believe it would have gotten them a step closer to their end goal and reduced the chances of mistakes’ occurring.

We are always interested in reading your comments and hearing your thoughts, so please chime in. 

Principal Researcher and Co-Founder at Metric Lab

Redwood City, California, USA

Demetrius MadrigalDemetrius truly believes in the power of user research—when it is done well. With a background in experimental psychology, Demetrius performed research within a university setting, as well as at NASA Ames Research Center before co-founding Metric Lab with long-time collaborator, Bryan McClain. At Metric Lab, Demetrius enjoys innovating powerful user research methods and working on exciting projects—ranging from consumer electronics with companies like Microsoft and Kodak to modernization efforts with the U.S. Army. Demetrius is constantly thinking of new methods and tools to make user research faster, less costly, and more accurate. His training in advanced communication helps him to understand and connect with users, tapping into the experience that lies beneath the surface.  Read More

Principal Researcher and Co-Founder at Metric Lab

Redwood City, California, USA

Bryan McClainBryan is passionate about connecting with people and understanding their experiences and perspectives. Bryan co-founded Metric Lab with Demetrius Madrigal after doing research at NASA Ames Research Center for five years. While at NASA, Bryan worked on a variety of research studies, encompassing communication and human factors and interacting with hundreds of participants. As a part of his background in communication research, he received extensive training in communication methods, including certification-level training in police hostage negotiation. Bryan uses his extensive training in advanced communication methods in UX research to help ensure maximum accuracy and detail in user feedback. Bryan enjoys innovating user research methods that integrate communication skills, working with such companies as eBay, Kodak, Microsoft, and BAE Systems.  Read More

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