How user research taught me not to be an asshole

Instrument gauges in a decommissioned power plant in Istanbul. Photo by the author.

Our final participant for the day was struggling to use the device that we were testing. Everyone we had brought in for the test had hit the same conceptual hurdles. This participant, however, was visibly annoyed, more so than those before him. He groaned, he scoffed, and then told us all the ways in which the design was faulty.

This particular participant happened to be a designer. This is, of course, not an ideal subject for a usability test. As a designer he knew too much and was not representative of the intended user group. He had been recruited by our client, had dutifully turned up, and we had decided we might still learn something from him. At the end of the session he proceeded to tell us, with unshakable confidence and certainty, how all users would interpret, understand and evaluate the design. It was interesting how forcefully he insisted on what he was telling us. It was especially interesting because we knew that he was wrong.

We knew he was wrong in a way that one rarely has the satisfaction of knowing this. We had been testing all day and met with a veritable crowd of people. What he described did not match how any of our prior participants had acted, or reacted, nor did it conform to the preferences and opinions they had expressed. In fact, things were almost the exact opposite of what he was so certain of.

This is when it hit me: sometimes the strongly voiced, confident, and slightly condescending designer, is me. It has happened. More than once. It shames me to admit this.

Here was a guy expressing his opinions with such conviction, but which I knew to be wrong. He was telling me how things were, even though I had just had a series of experiences that ran counter to the picture that he was painting. Having seen the people who came before him I was in a privileged position. I found this to be incredibly humbling. Of course I know that I am sometimes wrong, but having this experience made that knowledge vivid and visceral.

Now that I express a thought about people’s understanding of a piece of design, I try to imagine myself standing in the middle of a line of people. I imagine what the person before me might say, and what the person after might say. I don’t always have to come up with specific answers, but the image reminds me that what they might say is likely to surprise me.

Sometimes we have to act with confidence, and projecting certainty can be part of being persuasive. There are also times when we are convinced that we are right, and on good grounds. But this doesn’t preclude a little humility.

We have a choice of which attitude to adopt, and how we communicate with others. This was one more thing that was brought home so clearly that day. All the people who took part in our test encountered and surmounted the same difficulties, but they did so in such varied ways. Some were calm and methodical, whilst others became uncertain or irritated. Some were indignant and demanded changes to be made to the device, whilst others offered their suggestions as possibilities to be taken into consideration. Seeing the breadth of possible reactions throughout the day, and seeing how gracefully some of our participants handled the situation, was very inspiring.

So what are the takeaways for you, dear reader? I’m telling you things that you already know: you are not the user, you are not representative of the user population, and you are sometimes wrong even though you are convinced that you are right. You knew this already. I knew this before that day of testing. What was startling for me was being so nakedly and concretely confronted with these facts.

How might you have the same experience that I had? Or how might you give members of your team or management that experience? The answer is straightforward: take part in user research and testing. If you don’t have the option of conducting user experience yourself ask if you can observe when someone else is doing it.

When you do, shut up, listen, observe, wait and defer judgement. If you do, you will stand to learn something important. Conducting user research is a fantastic reminder that people are different in interesting, informative and inspiring ways.