Asking the users
A very common approach entails asking users to talk about their experiences, habits, opinions, preferences and so on. This can be done using methods such as questionnaires or interviews, where single individuals are asked to provide information based on questions from the designers, or focus groups, in which a group of people are gathered together to discuss issues around a specific topic or product.
These methods can be applied in a more or less structured way, depending on whether you are just beginning to explore the issues or you are investigating a particular aspect of the design. A questionnaire could be highly structured and include questions with multiple-choice answers, or it might be less structured with open-ended questions, allowing people to express their thoughts freely. Similarly, interviews might follow closely a sequence of specific questions, or they might be loosely guided by some general questions, allowing the interviewer to explore in more depth relevant topics raised by each person being interviewed. The same applies to focus groups, which can be strictly focused or leave room for a wider discussion.
The advantage of using methods that invite people to share their thoughts is that they elicit the user’s own interpretation of things they know or have experienced. We call this a subjective interpretation, as it concerns the user’s personal account, very much from their own perspective. In other words, this is not a general interpretation that is known to hold for a group of people and which is corroborated – which would be referred to as an objective interpretation. However, there are limitations to asking people to describe their experience: people aren’t always sure about how they feel or what they want; they may not be aware of or remember things they do; or they may even misrepresent what they do.