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People-centred designing
People-centred designing

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10 User research techniques: observing users

This section introduces an alternative to basing user research on yourself. This is observation of experienced and inexperienced users either in experimental or natural situations.

One way around the difficulties of basing research on oneself is to observe other people acting as users and to choose naive or different kinds of experienced users, depending on what information you want to gather.

Begin by identifying those experienced users who will be able to provide you with relevant information. Most people are usually willing to cooperate and speak their minds if approached tactfully and with obvious good intent. It is as well to have a short list of questions you want to cover when consulting users, but avoid, for these purposes, a formal, rigorous questionnaire. Stick at first to unstructured discussions with the users, and get them to describe and comment on what seems important to them, as well as on what you regard as important.

Record what you are told, and your impressions of what you are told, during or immediately after the consultation.

As experienced users will have adapted themselves to the job or situation, or may consider it not worth commenting on certain aspects, you should combine or follow your consultation with some observation of the users in action. Look for, and ask about, aspects that seem difficult or unusual or critical. Look also for informal modifications to the job, work space or equipment that the user may have made for themselves – for example a hand-made sign or label on a machine, additional loose cushions on a seat, and so on. You should also record relevant circumstantial information, such as the user's age, sex, experience, the time of day, weather, and so on.

Also, an amazing amount of information relevant to the redesign of a product or system often can be gained from observing inexperienced users’ attempts to cope. Inexperienced users can reveal potentially important problems, difficulties, ideas, etc of which experienced users will be unaware.

Finding an inexperienced user is not always easy, but there may be ways of lowering a user's normal level of experience by introducing some novel feature. Acting as an inexperienced user, and perhaps being made to look naive or foolish, can be embarrassing, too. You should reassure your volunteers – and maybe yourself – you are looking for shortcomings in the product design, not in the users, and they should blame the design of the product, not themselves, for any difficulties.

Once you have found volunteers, give them only the basic objective they have to achieve, without any detailed instructions. Such an objective might be, ‘programme this VCR to record a programme on BBC 1 from 9.00pm to 10.00pm next Wednesday’ (assuming they are not familiar with the machine); or ‘listen to the voice-mail message that has been received on this telephone, and send a short text reply’.

You need to observe and record carefully what the inexperienced user does. Get your volunteers to talk about the task as they attempt it. You may find it takes what you would regard as an extraordinary amount of time for an inexperienced user successfully to operate something you are familiar with yourself, and your volunteer may actually be unable to achieve a seemingly simple objective. Don't offer advice if your volunteers get stuck – unless it looks as though they will cause damage or an injury, or until it would be more fruitful to move on to the next stage of a sequence of operations. Try not to laugh or get angry. Remember the advice about blaming the design, not the user.

Click on the 'View document' link below to read, an example of observation research watching users of digital cameras.

View document [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

As well as conducting special experiments with selected users of a product or machine, it can be informative to record what happens during normal use, by making observations of typical users at work. This is sometimes called an ethnographic approach, because it relies on observing and recording peoples' normal, everyday behaviour.

If you wish, watch this short video clip from Alison Black at IDEO.

Download this video clip.Video player: t211_1_005v.mp4
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