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The Deceptively Simple Trick to Understanding Your Customers

| June 25, 2015
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blog-jen_observation-ux-bigOur natural, everyday life affords us endless opportunity to observe our surroundings. The people we interact with, the technology we depend on. None of it is perfect, and all of it can be improved upon—if we pay attention.

This is what got me interested in user testing in the first place. I can’t count how many times I’ve interacted with something and thought, “If someone in charge could see what this is really like for me right now, they’d change it.” And it doesn’t take too many more interactions like that before I move on to a better option.

Observation is the Mother of Invention

There’s an old proverb that says, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” which could easily be modified to, “Observation is the mother of invention.” By simply observing how we interact with our environment, we could learn a lot. Especially when it comes to designing a great user experience.

Sometimes it can be a challenge to convince stakeholders that user testing is important. After all, they may already have market research, statistics, and spreadsheets that provide all sorts of data. But what’s that data worth if you don’t understand how it came about?

Getting into the heads of your users may sound complicated, but gathering meaningful insights is easier than you think. Just open your eyes. Observation is one of the most powerful tools we have as researchers, marketers, designers, developers—just name a profession.

Yet despite the natural simplicity of observation, many organizations overlook it as part of their strategy. Statistics and data begin to drive decisions, and before long companies forget who they’re really there for in the first place: the customer.

Still not convinced? Read on for three reasons why observation is a crucial step in designing a great user experience.

1. The curse of knowledge

The curse of knowledge happens to the best of us. It means that no matter how hard you try to separate yourself from a project, you can never un-know what you know. The instant you get involved with a project, you’ll never have fresh eyes on it again.

Observing real people as they interact with your site, app, or product lifts that curse just long enough for you to get new insights. That feature your market research told you “everyone” wanted? When no one even notices it, or worse, they think it’s not useful, you realize what you “know” isn’t what’s really happening with your customers in real life.

2. Being human

When you’re immersed in a project it’s easy to start speaking in jargon. But is that the same language your users are speaking? While you may need to get technical while finding solutions, your users may not easily relate to that same terminology.

There’s a scene in one of my favorite movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey where one of the main characters is attempting to read the instructions for a zero gravity toilet. I’m willing to bet there’s a lot of unnecessary information in there—jargon or not—that makes those instructions so daunting. If you asked someone how to operate the toilet, I guarantee they wouldn’t read off everything that’s on that list.

Observing real people using your product reminds you that there’s usually a human being at the other end of whatever it is you’re working on. Communicate with your users like they’re human beings. Because they are.

3. Context

Have you ever taken your car to a mechanic to have them check out a suspicious noise, only to have them tell you they couldn’t find anything? You leave, feeling a little embarrassed, and a few miles later, as you turn sharply onto your street you hear the noise. There’s something unique about the way you drive, the route you take, and the exact conditions you’re under when that sound is produced. That’s context. And your users are in the same position.

For example, just yesterday I was trying to find a new bus route for my evening commute. I had looked up the route and stop on my desktop before I left the office and was confident I knew where to go. I had the cross streets for the bus stop and the time of departure. I left the office and headed to my stop. But when I got there, there wasn’t a bus stop in sight. I tried pulling up the same site I’d used on my computer, but it wasn’t optimized for mobile, and the fields were too small to manage with one hand, a large bag, and an anxious would-be passenger. I had three minutes until my bus would depart. If that site had tested its (ahem) “mobile” site with users in the wild, they would’ve quickly realized how important it was to optimize for mobile. Yet if they’d conducted the same study in a lab, that context would’ve been lost, and users may have been able to find their route.

Observing users in their natural environment—whether it’s at home on the couch, or on the subway—gives you insight you’d never get from a survey, and probably not from the lab, either.

Observation’s Reward

The reward for observation isn’t just insight on solving existing problems. It can help you find new ones before your customers do, not to mention provide opportunities to address unmet needs.

The inspiration for things like gravity and Velcro came from observation. Newton, as legend tells us, watched an apple fall from the tree, and now we know about gravity. And Velcro emerged after its creator, Swiss engineer George de Mestral, labored over prying burrs off his dog after a hike.

We can look at statistics and spreadsheets until we go blind, but until you see a frustrated user struggling to get the information she needs, you won’t fully understand her plight. This is why user testing is so important at every stage. Observing users gives you insight not just on what they do, but what’s driving them, and more importantly, how they feel when they’re doing it. Stepping back and observing your users and customers in their natural environment may be the easiest and most valuable method to understanding how they interact with your product. Perhaps observation is the true mother of invention.