Research is a social activity. Many people have a vision of researchers as stoic intellectuals in white lab coats, sitting and observing people from behind one-way mirrors. The reality is quite different. User research is a process in which you communicate with people so you can learn about their lives and their needs. In the long run, forming an understanding of the people who will be using your product is much more important than just knowing their individual thoughts on a design concept or user interface.
The only way that you’ll be able to gain this understanding is if you can put participants at ease and talk to them as real people rather then just using them as a means of improving your product. The best way to connect with participants is to take your time and get to know them as people before you dive into your research protocol. Ask them questions about their lives, their jobs, and how their day is going. You need to get to a level deeper than just superficial chitchat. You want your communication with research participants to feel like you’re talking to a good friend.
Keep in mind that you have two goals: first, to help a person feel relaxed and comfortable, so he or she will open up and communicate freely; second, to learn as much as you can about their lives. This understanding can provide invaluable insights that can help you to better form your questions, as well as interpret their answers. For example, if a person reports that he doesn’t see any value in a product and you know about his life, you can ask him about potential use cases that he may have overlooked. If someone is being vague in his answers to your questions, you’ll know how to direct him toward making a definitive statement by applying the concept to a specific example in his life.
More specifically, if you were testing a product that lets users find their parked car, but a participant mostly rides his bike and parks his car for days at a time, you might ask whether he sometimes has difficulty remembering where he’s parked his car three or four days ago. The participant might not have immediately thought about applications for this product because he doesn’t drive often, but by suggesting an important use case, you may help the participant look at the product from a different perspective. This data can inform both design and marketing strategies.
Don’t Answer Questions
The purpose of research is to gather information, not to provide it. When people ask you questions, your instinct is to try to answer them, but you must resist this urge, because it will interfere with your ability to get accurate and actionable data.
I’ve seen people doing user research explain a product or user interface to a participant, including all of its features and how it operates. This prevents your having the opportunity to get a participant’s immediate reaction to the product. Instead of explaining a product’s value proposition to a participant, ask the participant What do you think this is? What do you think you would use it for? This lets you get an idea of how clearly a product conveys its concepts. If they are unclear, you can then explain the product and ask participants how you could make the ideas clearer.
When testing user interfaces, present participants with scenarios for tasks that would motivate them to try to figure out how to use the user interface properly on their own. Here’s an example: You’re moving into a new apartment, and you need to sell a couch that you aren’t going to take with you. How would you go about doing that? If a participant asks, Do I go to auctions? Don’t answer the question! Just note his response and tell him to feel free to try things. If a participant notices something in a user interface and asks you, What’s this over here? you should respond, What do you think it is? What would you expect it to be? Try to be like a therapist and always answer a question with a question.
It is more important for you to get a sense of participants’ impressions and reactions to user interface elements than for them to understand every aspect of a user interface. Try to keep in mind that customers won’t have you sitting next to them in the real world. It’s important to try to replicate that reality during research.