On user observation

I think I’ve said it before, and I’m going to say it again: You are not doing UX if you are not talking to users! Sometimes I meet people who call themselves interaction designers who says it’s not part of their job to meet clients. I can buy that if there is a user researcher on their team, filling in the blanks that they didn’t know were there.

You can come a long way in design by just knowing the design principles of good usability: Fitt’s law, gestalt theory and all those things. And maybe you can create something very simple that might actually appeal to everybody as is the wet dream of any stake holder. By utilizing norms and standards you can come a long way, as there are firm consistencies on where to best place buttons, how to best display data and what interaction elements are best suitable in different situations. But as soon as you are building anything more complex than an alarm clock, you need to know who your users are and what their goals are, to be able to build something that “delights” them.

This hit me with full force one day when I was out to observe some of my users. I got the privelige to sit with them for a few hours, watching how they planned their tasks, how they interacted with their collegues and eventually followed through using the software that I was improving. And as I was sitting there I noticed that there was a calculator on each desk. On each desk there was also at least one smartphone and of course their computer, both most likely satisfying anyone’s need to be in close proximity to a calculator. I have a calculator on my phone. It even came with a ¬†shortcut on the home screen to improve access. But these people had real-life hardware calculators, the kinds that I had been using when I was in school, half a lifetime ago, and they weren’t even economists! What was going on here? The thing is, I was observing managers in the staffing industry. It never occured to me that they needed calculators in their jobs, but when they were staffing personnel on an assignment, they were constantly checking how much their company was going to make on that deal, subtracting the consultant’s pay from the fee of the assignment. This was a part of the staffing process!

Now I could have asked why they didn’t use the calculators on their phones or on their computers. Or I could have made a mental note and insisted that we should build a calculator our selves so that they don’t need to reach for those clunky, plastic ones! But I didn’t. I didn’t ask about the calculators because I did’t have to. I had seen in what context they were being used. Mid-conversation with co-workers one of these users, my users, would grab a calculator, punch in a few numbers and relay the result to the colleague they were talking to. I estimate that this whole procedure takes 6.5 seconds. I just measured that on the stopwatch on my phone. (It took me about seven seconds to find it because I was looking in the wrong place…) Finding the calculator on my PC and producing a result took me 14.2 seconds the first time and then I meassured again because I screwed up a little. The second time was 10.4 taking the absolute shortest route. On my smartphone it was 9.9.

So anyway, 6.5 vs 9.9 seconds or even 10.4 is not a huge time difference. But how thrilled are you to wait ten seconds when you can wait six? And then there is another thing: The activity itself. Imagine the difference between picking up the calculator, turning it on, punching the numbers, pressing the equal button and reading the answer, compared to opening the start menu on you computer, search or browse to the calculator, click it, punch in the numbers, click the equal sign and then read the answer. Imagine doing this as you are talking to a colleague, turning around to get to your computer, unlocking your screen, getting the calc, getting the answer (forgetting the answer, turning back to look at it again). All the while you are trying to maintain a posture that does not snub your coworker.

Not only does it take longer, it involves more steps. It involves choices you are not forced to make on an old fashioned, out-dated calculator (Should I use the mouse? Should I use the number pad?). It involves distractions (Oh, look! Facebook message!). In short, the workload is bigger and the cognitive involvement is bigger.

So no, I did not suggest to put a calculator in the product that we were working on. As a user researcher you don’t just have to know what problems to solve, you have to know what problems not to solve. Doing user observations makes you realize not only how your users are using your stuff, but also in what context, and knowing that will make you a kick-ass UX designer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *