It’s not the sexiest of activities. And it can feel like putting the brakes on your great idea. But if you want to build a tech for good service that meets your users’ needs, its a must-do.
You’ve worked with your beneficiaries for years. You think you know what they need. You believe you know what your project needs to build.
But hold up. Even if you know what they need you can’t be sure what they’ll actually use. And even if you understand their behaviour you probably don’t understand their digital behaviours.
Have you documented your users’ behaviours, attitudes, problems and goals? Has your team analysed and challenged them together? Have they turned those insights into validated user needs?
If you’ve done all this then you can proceed to the next stage of your Jedi #techforgood training, young padwan.
But if you haven’t then you need to do more user research.
Here’s what it is and why you should do it.
It leads directly to user value
The best digital services can only be made by charities who understand their users. Their products:
- are easy and pleasurable to use
- are directly relevant to users day-to-day lives
- help users solve a problem or frustration they regularly experience.
In short they have user value.
They have user value because the team did enough of the right research before they hacked a prototype or wrote a line of code.
User research: it’s a way of understanding the needs, motivations, behaviours, desires of people when they are ‘using’ a product or a service. Doing user research helps generate actionable insights.”
— Cassie Robinson, Doteveryone
It creates empathy and understanding
In your day-to-day work you’ve probably built a good understanding of your users. That’s important. But to build a good digital product you need to dig deeper into how people behave and why. You need to get your research spade to work on three things:
- How they currently solve their problems
- Their digital behaviour and commonly used devices
- The context within which they experience their problems (particularly the one you are trying to solve)
You need to use ethnographic tools that generate empathy (no focus groups required here).
Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task.”
— Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO
You could build even more empathy by learning more broadly about their lives but it’s usually better to focus on the problem and only include things that affect the way they experience and manage it.
User research uses common tools we already know
“To truly understand user behaviours, it’s better to spend a lot of time with a smaller number of people, rather than one moment with lot. So rather than surveys, you use techniques like semi-structured interviews or shadowing.”
— CAST, Digital Service Principle 1
User research typically begins with common tools used in ethnographic studies:
- Desk-based – learning about your user group from previous research
- Interviews – talking in-depth with 6-10 users to gather usable insights
- Service safari – observing users in their day to day lives (sometimes possible, always valuable)
Later on you’ll research and test prototypes with them, you might even run some co-creation sessions. But only after doing enough user research first.
You don’t need to do as much as you thought
In her book ‘Just Enough User Research’ Erika Hall explains the principles and practices of doing enough, but not too much, research. It’s reassuring to read that you don’t need to do as much as you thought. It’s also helpful to reflect on your blind spots and biases, something she advocates too.
Understand that doing less of the right research is way more useful than doing lots of the wrong type. After 5-10 interviews you should have established your users’ main needs and behaviours.
Or cheat and read a summary.
It’s not focus groups and consultation events
Sorry. I know we love ’em in the sector, but they’re not much use when it comes to user research. Both create artificial environments where discussion is moderated and vulnerable to group dynamics. It’s easy for them to become abstract and inhibitive places.
It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
— Steve Jobs
User interviews are different. Interpersonal dynamics exert less influence and allow the subject to dive more freely into their experiences. This produces deeper and more reliable findings and insights.
It doesn’t ask people what they want
The first rule of user research: never ask anyone what they want.
— Erika Hall, Just Enough Research
One of the biggest shifts that charities are making in their approach to user research and digital design is they’ve stopped asking people what they want. Steve Jobs and Henry Ford knew that we aren’t good at knowing what we want, even when we think we do. If you still need convincing that not asking people what they want is the right thing to do then read this.
Instead ask ‘why’? Try to find out your users’ underlying needs and behaviours. Keep a skeptical mindset about your discoveries. Use questions like these.
Good user research involves the whole team. You might share research tasks, but you’ll always analyse findings and generate insights together. It has to be this way. If you don’t collaborate then bias occurs and insights get missed.
Also, the best people to apply your research later on will be the people who carried it out. So get your designers and your developers involved. Let everyone be a smart person with insights!
Enough for now
We could go deeper. But for now let’s call a halt. We’ll write about user research again. Until then dive into CAST’s Know How Non Profit Guide to Doing User Research for more guidance.