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What is Observation?

Observing a man doing work on several large monitors

In user research, we primarily do two things – observe people and ask questions. Ideally, we want to observe people’s natural behavior, without having our presence influence what they do.

Observation sounds deceptively simple. You sit and watch what people do. It seems like anyone can do that. But to get the most value out of observation, there’s more to it than passively looking and listening.

In my latest UXmatters article, I examine what observation involves, the different types of observation methods, and explore a more rarely used method in UX research – naturalistic observation. The Role of Observation in User Research

 

Image courtesy of: You Belong in Longmont

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Better UX Recommendations

Findings and recommendations spreadsheet

As UX researchers, we tend to focus more time on explaining our findings than in providing our recommendations. Yet, however well we explain the findings and recommendations, there comes a time when we’re not present, and the people who have to implement the recommended changes have to rely on the written recommendations and what they remember from your explanation. So it’s very important to ensure that your UX recommendations are understandable, concise, specific, believable, authoritative, actionable, feasible, flexible, prioritized, and easy to review. I provide advice on how to provide better recommendations in my latest article on UXmatters:

Providing Better UX Recommendations

Is Any User Research Better Than None?

Donkey looking at camera

Any user research is better than doing no user research, right? If you can’t reach your target users, you can do research with your company’s employees, because they’re kind of similar right? If you can’t visit people in person to see them perform their tasks, maybe you can do phone interviews or send out a survey. That’s better than nothing, right?

The truth is that it’s sometimes better not to do any user research than to do half-assed user research. I’m not saying that you always have to the perfect user research conditions or its not worth doing. In reality, we rarely have all the time we need and the perfect circumstances to conduct extensive user research. So it’s understandable that we sometimes have to cut corners and make do with what we’re able to get. However, there’s a fine line between discount user research and half-assed user research.

The danger is when you always cut corners, you can become an enabler. Your shortcuts become the norm, allowing your company to check off the user research checkbox, allowing them to say, “Yes, we do user research.” If you can’t eventually convince them to devote more time and effort to user research, sometimes it’s better to practice tough love and let them fail by not doing any user research, rather than allowing them to rely on poor quality research.

In my latest UXmatters article, I provide advice about how to know when you’re practicing half-assed user research and how to improve. Check it out: Avoiding Half-Assed User Research

Image by Spider.Dog

What Personal Qualities Do You Need As a User Researcher?

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Have you ever wondered what qualities you need to succeed in user research? I just published an article on UXmatters, Qualities of Effective User Researchers, which lists the following qualities that lead to a successful career in user research:

  • Curiosity
  • Idealism
  • Pragmatism
  • Persuasiveness
  • Open-Mindedness
  • Ability to Learn Quickly
  • Organizational Skills and Attention to Detail
  • Time Management Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Empathy
  • Friendliness
  • Neutrality
  • Perceptiveness
  • Patience
  • Mental Agility
  • Flexibility and Adaptability
  • Good Memory
  • Effective Notetaking
  • Analytical Skills
  • Problem Solving
  • Design Skills
  • Writing Skills
  • Communication Skills

This may sound like an intimidating list, but you don’t have to be perfect in all of these areas. Check out the full article on UXmatters – Qualities of Effective User Researchers.

Cow image by FFCU (Free for Commercial Use) by Creative Commons License

Questions People Have a Hard Time Answering

Question marks

Over the years, I’ve made my share of mistakes and learned about the types of questions and topics that participants have a hard time answering accurately in user research. Most people do try to answer your questions, but they may not be able to easily and accurately answer these types of questions:

  • Remembering details about the past
  • Predicting what they might do in the future
  • Accurately answering a hypothetical question
  • Discussing the details of their tasks out of context
  • Telling you what they really need
  • Imagining how something might work
  • Envisioning an improved design
  • Distinguishing between minuscule design differences
  • Explaining the reasons for their behavior

I discuss these types of difficult questions, and better ways to get that information from participants, in my latest article on UXmatters:
Avoiding Hard-to-Answer Questions in User Interviews.

Image credit: Véronique Debord-Lazaro on Flickr

The Most Difficult User Research Method

User research participant at desk

What do these three things have in common – playing in a one-man band, juggling chainsaws, and babysitting 10 three-year-olds? When you try to do all of these things at the same time, it’s only slightly more difficult than conducting field studies.

Of course, I’m just kidding, but not by much. In my opinion, field studies are the most difficult user research technique for three reasons: unpredictability, the need to learn about unfamiliar domains, and the need to deal with competing demands. There’s not much you can do about unpredictability or the need to learn a new domain, but there are things that you can do to better handle the competing demands of field studies.

In my latest article on UXmatters, I discuss these competing demands and how to best handle them:

  • Observing and listening
  • Understanding
  • Determining whether and when to ask questions
  • Formulating questions
  • Assessing answers
  • Managing the session
  • Assessing the session
  • Keeping track of the time
  • Managing observers
  • Capturing the session
  • Maintaining a good rapport with the participant

Read more in my latest article, Handling the Competing Demands of Field Studies.

Image credit: Highways England on Flickr

This One Goes to 11

I just published an article on UXmatters, 10 User Research Myths and Misconceptions. It addresses common misunderstandings about user research that I’ve encountered over the years.

Here’s a bonus outtake from the article, Myth 11…

Myth 11: Field Research Is Better Than Usability Testing

On the other end of the spectrum from those who don’t understand the difference between user research and usability testing, are the user research elitists who think up-front, generative user research methods are far superior to usability testing. In this view, field studies take researchers out of the lab to observe people in their natural environments performing their usual activities, while usability testing takes place in the sterile, artificial environment of a usability lab and asks people to perform a limited set of artificial tasks. Instead of learning about people and what they really do, usability testing provides the limited value of learning whether people can perform your artificial tasks.

The Truth: Both Field Research and Usability Testing Have Their Places

Field studies and usability testing are two different methods used for different, but equally important, purposes. Field studies provide information to inform design, while usability testing evaluates a design. You have to make interpretations and conclusions from the user research and apply that to a design. Even after very thorough user research, you’re never completely sure that what you’ve designed will work well for the users. Usability testing is the evaluation that either confirms your decisions or points you to refinements. Both user research and usability testing are important and necessary. There’s no reason we can’t appreciate the value of both methods.