User Research Drives New Ideas

As Yogi Berra once said, “you can observe a lot by watching.” Watching people, or observing users, helps us understand their goals and values, and can uncover design insights.

In the HCI and UX design field, this is sometimes called needfinding, essentially the fundamentals of customer research. The goal of needfinding is to uncover user needs, clever hacks, and opportunities for improvement within a given area of activity. You can either identify opportunities for new digital experiences to solve existing analog problems that people have. Or you may be designing a product to improve an existing digital interactions, and increase user efficiency (in these cases, you’ll want to observe your user performing tasks, with technology or a device).

“Pay attention to what people do, rather than to what they say.” – Scott Klemmer, Stanford HCI Group

Step 1: Conduct Needfinding Observations
– Select 3-5 individuals to observe. Choose people who are not similar to yourself. Observe the successes, breakdowns, and latent opportunities that occur when computers are used, not used, or could be used to support your chosen activity.

– During the observation, in addition to taking notes, use digital photographs or sketches to document activities.

– After the observations, spend 10 to 15 minutes interviewing your participants about the activity you observed.

Stages of an Interview Process
Here are some extremely truncated examples of questions for each stage:

  1. Introduction: “Hi, I’m a Stanford student studying coffee. I’m interested in hearing about your experience with coffee. There are no right or wrong answers, I just want to hear what you have to say.”
  2. Kick-off: “Do you drink coffee?”
  3. Build rapport: “Did you have a coffee today? How was it? Do you have a favorite coffee?”
  4. Grand Tour: “Can you describe your most memorable coffee experience? Why was it so unique? What happened?”
  5. Reflection: “If you were designing the ultimate coffee shop based on your ideal experience…”

Other Forms of Observation

Step 2: Document User Needs
After completing observations, it’s time to review your findings. Use them to brainstorm a list of specific user needs. Go for volume when you brainstorm and include as many people as you want to help you. Remember, you are not looking for solutions yet! Focus on user needs and goals only.

An example of a need might be “Sometimes, when Scott takes the Caltrain home, there is no room for his bike and he has to wait for the next one. Scott needs a way to plan what train to take based on how much room is available in the bike car”. It is helpful to use to phrases “needs a way to” or “needs to be able to” as you list your user needs.

Step 3: Competitive/Landscape Research
Your next step is to find inspiration for design solutions. Often times, UX designers will look to direct competitors, or great examples of inspirational design across industries. Inspiration can be existing applications, artifacts, products, or services that relate to your concept. It often helps to document your inspirations, in very rough format, and clearly make note of why you find them good/effective examples.