Learning About and Modeling Users

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A column by Janet M. Six
August 4, 2014

You have a new UX design project. Great! Now, what should you do to get to know your users and model them to ensure that you design the right solution for their needs? Let’s see what our panel of experts has to say about how they go to users and observe them in their natural environment. In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss some ways to learn about and model users.

By learning about your users, making sure that you share what you discover with your colleagues, using your personal design strengths, and applying what you learn through research during design and implementation, you can meet your users’s needs.

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In this monthly column, Ask UXmatters, our experts provide answers to our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Carol Barnum—Director of User Research and Founding Partner at UX Firm; author of Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set … Test!
  • Caroline Jarrett—Owner and Director at Effortmark Limited; UXmatters columnist
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Jim Ross—Senior UX Architect at Infragistics; UXmatters columnist
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Jo Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Learning About Your Users

Q: What are your favorite ways to learn about your users?—from a UXmatters reader

“I don’t think any particular method of user research is better or worse than another,” replies Jordan. “It often comes down to the evaluator over the technique. Someone really great at writing and analyzing surveys might have no clue about conducting a focus group or an ethnographic study.

“As UX professionals, it often falls to us to recommend when to involve users—and when not to. There are a lot of variables that influence a research recommendation, but usually we want to get to the truth about something. Our objective should be to recommend the best way of uncovering the most accurate truth about something users do or think. This usually involves an ongoing cycle of generating theories and testing them so we can refine our vision of users. Plus, users are constantly evolving, so we need to constantly be listening and evaluating their behavior.”

Go to Users’ Natural Environment

“There is nothing better than going out to visit people in their natural environment to talk with them and observe them performing their usual activities,” answers Jim. “That gives you the most accurate understanding of what they really do. It’s always fun and interesting to get out of the office—where you’re somewhat isolated and out of touch—and into the real world to find out what’s really going on.”

“Our favorite way to learn from our users is to go into their lives and listen to their stories,” reply Dan and Jo. “This can be either in their home, place of business, or another context and enables us to to gain perspectives beyond the limited scope of only the task or the functional lens. Doing this also provides a richer understanding of the people we design for, their personal ecosystems, and how our observations may connect together to give us clearer insights. It also lets us build a library of stories, so over time, we can identify usage patterns that may tell us what users might find valuable for future design iterations.”

Usability Testing

“This is a no-brainer for me—usability testing, of course,” responds Carol. “I’m in good company with Jakob Nielsen on this. He repeatedly promotes usability testing over any other type of user research—and despite how small the budget might be. Back in 2003, he wrote an Alertbox column, ‘Usability for $200,’ on how to conduct usability testing for $200. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $254 today. Granted, you can’t do much with a few hundred dollars, but I understand Nielsen’s point: that you can do something, no matter how small the budget.

“More recently, Nielsen wrote a column called ‘The Most Important Usability Activity.’ This column more specifically addresses the question that our reader has asked about our favorite ways to learn from our users. I find myself agreeing with Nielsen that if you can do only one thing, that thing should be usability testing.

“Still, there are good reasons to do other things such as field studies, expert reviews, card sorts, and making use of the other tools in the UX toolkit. But I would stress that these other things—even one of these other things—should not be the only thing. So, if you can do only one thing to learn about your users, make it a small, quick, cheap—if budget is an issue—usability study, in which you observe and learn from real users doing real tasks.”

Share the Knowledge

“I’m increasingly of the view,” answers Caroline, “that we are often at risk of what I call the ‘user researcher’s fallacy’—the belief that if, as user researchers, we learn something about our users, there is value in that. However, on any project where we have colleagues, there is value in learning about users only if our colleagues can share in that knowledge. So my favorite way of learning about users is: whatever way means that the team can share that knowledge.”

Modeling Your Users

Q: What are your favorite ways to model your users?—from a UXmatters reader

“My favorite way to approach anything is to strike the optimal balance between enjoyability and practical results,” says Jordan. “When it comes to user modeling, I would recommend doing it only if it will be beneficial to the team or the project. Spending hours—or days—thinking through mental models, user journeys, user archetypes, personas, and such can help unite a team, but is often a waste of time.

“It can be mentally rewarding to create beautiful documentation that actually conveys user insights, but unless you’ll actually use it for something, it doesn’t provide a lot of value. So, I don’t care about user modeling in general; I care about what users do and think when using a product or service. I can quickly document this narrow view of users in the form of a narrative—whether user stories or task analyses.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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