2 Ways to Get the Most Out of User Observation

August 2, 2016

3:30 pm

User observation: That part of product development where you actually find out what your users are like. This is an essential aspect of design, as it will allow you to find out how to present and structure whatever your product is, from hardware to software. If you find out your potential users’ pain points, you can give them what they need and take them from potential users to actual users.

User observation usually takes the form of an interview. You’ll offer a prototype to a test audience member in the right demographic and then poke around until you figure out what they have to say about their feelings, thoughts, and level of understanding. According to Dominika Blackappl, designer and a Y Combinator part-time partner, the biggest goal is knowing when to listen. She suggests two ways to do so.

1: Trigger Questions

You must figure out how to coax out the information you need. Don’t just stop at their initial thoughts. Make sure you press them to go deeper. As Blackappl explains:

“User observation is the opposite of a sales pitch! Your role is to listen. The less you talk, the more you learn. The purpose of you speaking during an observation is to keep the momentum and make sure you stay on topic. The most useful trigger question is ‘Why?’.”

2: Props

Sometimes a verbal question isn’t enough to nudge the user into understanding the context that your product works within. Enter props:

“Regarding props, sometimes it helps people to start sharing when you provoke them with a prop. For example, when validating the Zappos need, you can bring a piece of cardboard the size of a computer screen and, with a marker, sketch out a catalog layout. You can pull that out during the interview and say: “Imagine this was a site with all the shoes on the American market, what would you do with it?” And after they reply you’d ask, “Why do you say that?” You can also plan to use props from a user’s environment. You could walk with the user to their closet and ask how they create outfits and how they match shoes with them.”

The rest of the article covers other details of user observation, like which users are the best test subjects and who to pick as your partner in the process of observing. But the fine art of the interview is essential to the task, and you’ll need to understand how to listen if your product hopes to succeed.

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He’s based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state’s slogan: “sayWA.” In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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