Thursday, July 22, 2010

When To Get Help With User Research

I don't spend a lot of time on this blog telling you why you should hire me to talk to your customers. In fact, the vast majority of the posts are meant to make it more possible for you to talk to your customers without hiring somebody like me. It's not that I don't like working. It's just that I think that anybody who is responsible for making decisions about products should know how to learn from users on their own. It results in better products for all of us.

Product owners need to be involved in customer research for a lot reasons. Reasons like:
  • You're more likely to believe the results if you participated in the research.
  • You're more likely to understand the relative importance of customer problems if you observed the problems happening.
  • You will come up with more comprehensive solutions to problems when you understand the context in which they're happening.
  • It's far too easy to ignore a report written up by a usability consultant, it's incredibly easy to forget to watch the testing videos.
  • If you do it yourself, all of the lessons you've learned will stay within the company, long after a consultant has gone on to other projects.
That said, I'm about to tell you why you may need to hire somebody like me. For a little while at least.

When I talk about customer research or customer development or learning from customers, I really mean quite a lot of different techniques. Sure, there are general best practices around talking to customers, tips for improving your research skills, and important things you should avoid, but there are also things like picking the right testing method or tool that you almost certainly have no experience with. You need to know what is the most important thing for you to do right now.

Do you know when it would be helpful to do a card sort? A journal study? A contextual inquiry? Do you know when it's fine to do a remote usability study vs when you should really run one in person? How about when your product will benefit from using an online tool like or fivesecondtest, and when something like that isn't useful? Do you know what sort of testing to do in order to find out why specific metrics are lower than you'd like? Do you know when you should start your visual design and when you need to concentrate on usability? Do you know how many people to talk to in order to answer a specific question? Do you know at what points in the development cycle talking to users is critical and when it's a waste of time? Do you know how to take several hours of free form user conversations and turn it into a small number of features or bug fixes that can be communicated to your engineering team?

If you answered, "of course I know that" to all of those questions, then move along. You almost certainly have no use for somebody like me to come in and help you out. If you answered, "I'm going to learn the answer to all of those questions," then I wish you good luck on your journey of discovery. I'll warn you though. There are more questions just like those.

If, on the other hand, you said, "I don't know the answer to a lot of those questions, but I wish somebody could help me understand the small subset of them that matter to me, as a product owner, so that I could get on with the business of building a great product," then you might want to give me (or somebody like me) a call.

Because it's true that there is a huge amount to know about talking to your users. But it's also true that, at any given stage in your product development, you probably only need to be concerned with only a little bit of it. And, it's also true that figuring out which bit of it you need to know can be really hard to do without help. That's where people like me come in handy. We can help you figure out what to do next, and then we can help you learn how to do what you need to do next.

But be careful. If you're a lean startup, you probably don't want to pay us to actually do what you need to do next. For all the reasons I mentioned above, that's still your job.

Interested in this sort of service? Learn more about Users Know here.

Want to read more posts on how to do this stuff yourself? Follow me on Twitter!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Shut up, and Show Me Something

I admit it. Quite often on this blog I give you long lists of fairly hard things to do. I ask you to change your whole approach to design or product management or customer interviewing or analyzing data. But not today. Today, I share with you one simple thing that is easy to remember and will transform your entire approach to customer research.

Ok, maybe it's not quite that cool, but it really will help you communicate with your customers better. Are you ready? Here it is:

Never have a conversation with a user (or potential user) where you don't show them something.

That seems simple enough, right? But why on earth should you do it, and what could you possibly show them?

Reasons for Communicating with Customers

Let's back up for just a moment. The main reasons that people generally talk with a user are:
  • To get information from them - what they like, what they don't like, what's confusing, why they're not buying things, etc.
  • To give them information - here are the features of the product, here's how to fix your problem, we swear it's a feature and not a bug, etc.
  • To sell them something - whatever it is that sales people do...besides drinking heavily
All of these things are much easier to do when you're looking at visual aids.

Getting Information from Users

Let's perform a thought experience. Without thinking about it, name three things you hate about doing your taxes. Were you able to do it? Of course you were. If you can't think of three things you hate about doing your taxes, either you're not paying attention, or your hiding all of your money in an offshore account in the Caymans. But are they really the three worst things?

Probably not. They're just the three things that you happen to think about when put on the spot. Next tax season, you'll be doing your taxes and think to yourself, "Oh right, THAT thing! I hate that thing! I wish I'd thought of that when I was asked for three things I hate." And you most likely would have thought of it if you'd been going through your tax preparation software when I asked.

Sure, you can just ask users what they like and dislike about your product, but you will get much better information if you're both looking at the product together. Even better, ask them to perform some tasks or just use the product while you watch. This not only jogs the user's memory about all the little annoying things that they're sort of used to, but you can also observe all the things that they don't even notice or are too embarrassed to mention they're having trouble with.