A Recent Project
On a recent project, a business asked us to help create personas and a customer journey map. So we needed to develop a user research plan that would enable us to gain a deeper understanding of the users for whom we were designing by collecting stories that could lead us to observations and insights about the domain under study.
While creating our deliverables, we also considered our process—listening to stories, translating the data from the stories to each other, and asking what we’d learned along the way. Then we thought about what this meant for our practice and how to improve our process the next time we conducted similar user research—our practice of the practice.
The deliverables were important, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll focus more on the process itself: capturing stories to develop a deeper understanding; looking at why planning is critical, how to capture stories, and how to evolve stories into observations and group observations into insights from the user research to help us to tell a compelling story to the business.
Barriers in Business to Deeper Understanding
Here are some example of barriers to our more deeply understanding users that exist today:
- The business already believes that they understand their customers, leading to false assumptions about what their customers need, who they are, what they do, what type of people they are, and incorrect design choices.
- There are gaps between the business and the people who own the customer relationships and channels.
- The business is working heads down to meet deadlines, so they have little time or attention for customer stories.
- The business does not know how to connect the data that may already exist in different parts of the organization to gain a clearer understanding of customer needs.
- The business relies on traditional market research that tends to look at demographics and does not help us to understand the user’s context.
- The business is wary of seeing the customers in their own context.
- Teams across the business, who own different parts of customer understanding, do not speak to each other, resulting in a customer story that doesn’t reflect reality and leading to further assumptions about what customers might need.
- The platform drives decisions that are targeted toward the customer. When platforms, systems, interfaces, products and services, and interactions drive our understanding of customer stories, needs, and goals, this results in a focus on technology, features, and language that the customer might not need.
- There is no time to plan. Continually, people are assigned tasks to meet the business’s short term goals and working hard to implement them so quickly that they have little time to lift their heads to see the path ahead and no time to plan what they should really be working on. See “the great tragedy of speed.”
Even when a business does have a human research and design practice, the business sometimes misunderstands its role and its tools, again leading to poor customer understanding and connecting inaccurate stories, needs, and goals to business strategy. Plus, there is an inability to view a problem or opportunity holistically, as we also mentioned in “Holistic Thinking on Transitioning to a New Practice Framework.”
Business obstacles to holistic thinking include, but are not limited to the following:
- silos—This creates divisions between people who should be speaking to each other.
- management structures—Sometimes people feel that they cannot speak to other people because a manager is blocking them from doing so.
- too much rational thinking—People sometimes spend so much energy on being business people that they forget how to communicate as human beings and instead speak in numbers—all because they think that’s the language of business or are unable to express themselves openly or connect with new and better ideas.
How can we better understand the systems at play so they’ll encourage human conversations that lead to healthier outcomes?
Your Lens for Collecting Stories
Before conducting user research to collect stories that will provide observations and insights, it helps to remember what it means to be human and focus on the human qualities that are necessary to gain a clear view into users’ lives.
Think of this less as research and more as a relationship. Getting to know people takes time. With every visit we make to users, we see how their lives have changed. Often, when the main driver is meeting research goals or ensuring that a person matches the recruitment criteria, we get to hear from people only during brief, one or two-hour blocks of time. Forming a relationship with a person means viewing that person as an equal participant in the research; a human being who can contribute actively to these conversations.
Be open to diversity in these conversations. Everyone has interesting and diverse thoughts and experiences to share with others. It is important to recognize and celebrate this. But we should also ensure that we don’t focus too much on differences for their own sake and instead try to understand where differences and similarities should play out in the designs and all of the work that we do. This will enable us to appreciate where people are coming from and give them the respect that they deserve, but at the same time, allow us to recognize new viewpoints and opportunities.
Caring for other people means that you care enough to look out for their best interests; that you’ve thought about the points at which people may face roadblocks in their journey and how to guide them gently around these obstacles. Users also need our design solutions to provide the flexibility to handle situations that we may not have considered when devising them, so we can empower users to handle those situations well. Doing all of this ensures that, when solutions impact people negatively, they’ll remember turning a challenging situation into positive one. These moments are rare.
We are seeking truth in the stories. If we care enough to have empathic conversations with the people who are our customers, so we can better and more deeply understand their lives, we’ll be able to uncover truths about their usage of our current products and identify gaps in functionality that we should explore further in designing future products. This is absolutely not about leading people to get them to tell us what we want to hear, framing our discussions with people with constraints that guide them, or placing our primary focus on business goals or political benefits to our project team. It’s about how a design can truly match what people want now and perhaps even in the future. Also see Practical Empathy by Indi Young.
When conducting user research, our human qualities can help or hinder our ability to get great stories. These qualities include—in no particular order—respecting, seeing, listening, probing, feeling, synthesizing, playing, leading, mentoring, facilitating, connecting, collaborating, critiquing, communicating, constructing, deconstructing, framing, envisioning, and persuading. Our ability to dip into and rise above these human qualities or to expand and contract as necessary is important. It’s equally important to have safe forums in which to practice these qualities, which help us in the context of our practice. At times, we need to be able to extend our framework beyond our primary research goals and themes to explore things that we might not initially know could lead us to insights that would be key to the business direction.
Planning Is Critical
It’s important to learn about a business’s expectations and also to enable its representatives to be part of our user research. We encourage business representatives to join us in doing user research so they can listen and learn from users’ experience first hand. In this way, we avoid research happening in a black box. Plus, it encourages everyone who participates to learn directly and connect what they learn to other stories as they emerge from customer visits. And the business can experience this first hand how the customers feel. We also promote going out into the user’s context—whether at home, at work, or at play—so we can gain a deeper understanding that goes far beyond demographics.
When planning your research, consider the following:
- research themes—What do you want to find out and how does it connect to larger research themes?
- immediate answers—To what questions do you want to find immediate answers?
- stretch questions—What stretch questions could your research help to answer and how would their answers connect to future learning opportunities—either as part of a holistic strategy or in understanding the systems at play?
- results—What do you want to do with the results? For our current project, we plan to map the observations to both personas and customer journeys, so what templates should we use to encourage designing for these deliverables?
- known or unknown assumptions—What do you know and what is unknown? What are your assumptions?
- other research—What other research already exists that could complement your research themes and goals?
- design implications—What questions should you include whose answers might impact the design?
- observations and insights—How do these fit within the larger collection of stories that form part of an observations and insights library for the business?