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.