October 22, 2013

For what seems like forever marketing firms have convinced businesses to believe that surveying customers about their opinions is a good way to learn about what people need. Not true. If we want to know what people need, we should look at and understand their behavior. User experience research is about going beyond collecting opinions. It’s about observing and understanding human behavior.

Observe What People Do, Not Only What They Say

Of course we hear what people say and there is tremendous value in listening. That said, we want to go beyond their opinions to understand the “why” behind their behaviors. Why did they click there? Why didn’t they know they could access this feature or that function? One of my favorite moments with clients is when the conversation turns to human behavior. It’s easy to survey customers and to get feedback about what they like and what they dislike but there are limits to surveys and, in general, soliciting opinions.

Really, it’s not fair. How is a person supposed to tell you what they need by answering questions about what they have? Re-read that sentence. A person’s answers and opinions are limited to what they know today. Limiting our focus to human opinions omits the invaluable insights which inevitably occur while observing people attempting to perform a task.

Think about it

If I asked you how you found this blog post you might tell me that you found the link on Twitter, came to our website, and read the post. Simple as that. From this explanation I’d understand your workflow to be:

  • See the link on Twitter
  • Click the link
  • Read the blog post

If I were observing you perform this task I likely observe you doing more things than you told me. First, I’d see that you use the Twitter desktop app and you found the link by using a saved search that lists all tweets with the hashtag “usability”. So, you didn’t randomly find the link on Twitter. This tells me something about your interests in usability. As part of the observation I notice you have lots of saved searches related to usability and user experience. I’m beginning to learn more about you and your interests. Now, once you’ve found the link to the blog post you immediately retweet the post and then click the link to get to the post on our blog. Your browser of choice is Firefox. You’re laptop is a Mac. You have more than 10 tabs open in your browser window – half of which are blogs related to user experience. I’m continuing to learn about you and your interests. I’m gaining more robust insight into your process and your behavior. After observing just a few people, patterns and themes begin to emerge. From these patterns and themes we can understand and eventually eliminate pain points and replace them with delightful experiences.

Leverage User Behavior to Transcend Opinions

Designing and developing software requires us to work across disciplines. We have product owners, developers, designers, and stakeholders and we all have opinions, just like our users. No matter what type of team you’re on there’s one question we consistently face: Who’s opinion is “right”?

Working with real people and learning about how and why they complete tasks is a powerful way to understand the root cause for problems. We want to understand their desires, goals, and needs; not just whether they like the colors on the website. Conducting usability tests helps to demonstrate areas of your product that cause users pain. These same tests can also reveal the areas where people are delighted and enjoy your product. In either case, we gain deeper insights by going beyond what people say by understanding why they do, what they do.

Posted In Research, User Experience.