Smile; shut-up and stare

I recently came across a tweet by a friend who then got caught up in an argument with his colleagues on whether tomato ketchup should be kept in the fridge. To solve the argument, he set up a quick online poll.

My instant thought when he sent the poll through was, who keeps ketchup in a fridge? Without hesitation, I voted no. The following morning, I woke up and headed to the kitchen for my breakfast, you can guess where I found the ketchup - yes, in the refrigerator. 

Since this, I have noticed that I don’t like the idea of the ketchup bottle not being cold, which (I think) influenced my vote. However, I do like chilled ketchup on my sandwich (which I noticed the next morning).

You might be wondering why this is relevant? Well, what I’ve just talked about links well with what I do day-to-day! As a user researcher, instead of asking clients to tell me what they like and don’t like about their services, I allow them to interact with it and run through their thoughts out loud whilst I observe them to see if I notice any contradictions in what they say and do. The good part of user research is that it often flags up such basic problems which seem quite obvious once the user knows about them. The not so glamorous part is trying to convince its worth to a potential client.

One example of a time when user research generated some interesting results for us was when I worked on a project concerning an online campus map. For this project, I went around the University campus interacting with students in the hope of finding their true feelings about the product. Without the physical product in hand some participants had good things to say about it, but the moment they started interacting with it, the real frustrations started to be shared. Their actions started to contradict their expectations and that’s what I needed. 

Coming from India means that I have found that having English as my second language plays quite well in my favour, as I don’t assume what people are trying to say. This makes me want to ask them what they really mean. To give you an understanding of where your product currently stands in terms of usability, I would advise you to run through the product with people who are potential users of the service.

Musings on the Northern User Experience Conference

The golden rule for every businessman is this: “Put yourself in your customer’s place.”
- Orison Swett Marden

Over the years, the word research has gained a bad reputation. Many businesses and entrepreneurs hear the word mentioned and instantly come back with a list of better things they could do with their precious time and money.

Say, for instance, that you’ve been having issues with a certain way of doing something. You go on to develop a new method that resolves these issues and launch it to the public. Sounds like a brilliant money making scheme! But was anyone else experiencing the same problems as you? How do you really know what you’ve created is exactly what is needed if you haven’t asked the people who could end up using it?

The same principle applies to websites. In order to make a website user-friendly, you first need to know what’s friendly for its target market. Conducting research will help you learn why users make certain choices and how they behave in their environment. It helps you gain a better understanding of your audience and determine how your product or service fits into their lives.

As the online world continues to grow, so does the value of a good website - and by good I mean a site that is aware of its users’ needs and has taken these into account throughout its development. This movement towards research was certainly noticeable at the recent Northern User Experience Conference (#NUX4) in Manchester, which was sold out for the first time in the event’s history.

The underlying message behind the various talks was that better products and websites can be developed through the use of effective research. For some of you reading this post, User Research might be a completely new concept that you haven’t really ever considered, others might be UX pros; either way, here are a few things that I think everyone can reflect on…

Fall in love with problems before falling in love with solutions

Now on the face of it, that statement doesn’t seem terribly optimistic, but if you think about it, unless your idea solves a real problem, success is highly unlikely. Tomer Sharon’s talk focussed on the importance of having an idea that solves a real problem and then developing that idea using and implementing feedback from real people. Abandoning assumptions and observing real life will enable you to create something far more relevant for your audience than if you go it alone.

Pre-empt common problems

Unfortunately the working world is not always plain sailing and the same issues will often occur time and time again, affecting your working relationship with the client and having a real cost on the project. For instance, with UX being a relatively new phenomenon, as an agency we need to help clients understand the added value this research will bring to their project.

Evangia Grinblo gave some great advice on how to resolve some of these common blockers. By categorising the different ‘kinds’ of issue you might face and creating a knowledge base for dealing with these types of problems, you’ll be in a far better position to resolve them earlier on when you next face them; paving the way for a happier, more productive relationship, that both parties will gain from.

Don't leave anyone out

Categorising users is sometimes necessary, but if you’re exposing that in your product or website, you’ll alienate people that feel like they don’t fit. Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s talk focussed on being inclusive and catering for all your users, and not just writing off certain people because they don’t fit your idea of a ‘common user’. These people are normally the most important as they’re highlighting that there’s something wrong with your solution that needs addressing.

So to sum up: always question what you’re creating, make sure you’re doing the right thing in the right way, welcome feedback and criticism - it’ll help you in the long run - and don’t leave anyone out. It’s worth the extra effort… I promise.