Conducting User Research in the Face of Constraint

Conducting User Research in the Face of Constraint

Conducting User Research in the Face of Constraint

As user experience professionals, you know how important it is to design products and services based on an understanding of customers’ goals, motivations, behaviors, and needs. In an ideal world you’d have the necessary resources for designing and executing a research strategy that would yield rich and meaningful insights about the people you are designing for.

However, it’s more likely than not that you’ll be faced with project constraints, whether from a lack of budget, a short timeline, or no access to your target audience. Or, perhaps your client doesn’t believe this is important, as after all, they know their clients. Does that mean you should give up on trying to get your clients to define their customers?

Defining the people you are designing for is a necessary part of declaring your design intent. Without knowing who you’re designing for and the needs that must be satisfied, how can you be sure you have the right content and functionality or what design features might drive the desired behaviors? How do you know what will engage your customers?

When you know that you simply won’t have the ability to do the kind of research that you’d prefer, you can think of creating a set of “hypotheses” about your the target audience.

There are some simple tools that are useful when jump-starting a conversation about the target audience with stakeholders: Empathy Maps and what I am calling “Persona Silhouettes”.

An Empathy Map is a tool used to collect a set of traits about a type of customer. On a large piece of paper, you draw a person’s head (nothing fancy) for each customer type and then create several areas to describe from the customer’s point of view what they may be thinking, saying, doing, and feeling. The stakeholders write their ideas on stickies and place them on the appropriate categories.

Persona Silhouettes is a similar tool to help communicate and refine your understanding of the target audience. This is especially useful if you were able to do a few user interviews or speak with user representatives such as customer services, sales, and training personnel. For each customer type, you draw a silhouette on a piece of paper and then place your ideas using stickies that describe the goals, needs, and feelings of that particular customer type. You can then walk through each silhouette with the stakeholders, discussing and fine-tuning who the target audience is.

Both tools ground the conversation on whose needs must be satisfied and serves as the measure for asking how a feature will help that customer reach their goal. The discussion is no longer about “the user”, but about the different goals, motivations, and behaviors of their customers. It also helps to build consensus between stakeholders who may have very different assumptions about who they are targeting.

Though these tools are no substitute for actually talking with your customers and creating data-driven personas, it does provide focus on the customer and their needs, and perhaps will open up your clients to being more customer-focused and thinking about how to design in a very different way than they’re used to.

For more information on Empathy Maps and other useful brainstorming tools, refer to Gamestorming by D. Gray, S. Brown and J. Macanufo.

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