Unravel customer pain faster with artifact research

A customer problem can often be elusive or difficult to tease out. You may be getting wildly different information from the people you’re speaking with, or vague answers to questions.

These murky results can happen for a combination of reasons. In many cases, this is because people don’t know what information to provide you. They may take something for granted in their every day work that is in fact vital information to you. In other cases, they have a specific feature in mind and are so focused on it that they leave out details they feel unimportant (consciously or unconsciously). Even more common is customers misreporting something about their behavior.

The fastest and most effective means I’ve found to quickly and bridge the gap between researchers and customers is artifact collection. In anthropological terms, artifacts represent anything created by people which gives information about the culture of its creator and users. Artifacts inherent utility to researchers is in that they help reflect the values, workflow, and environment of the person being researched. It represents an expression of their work so important that the person has dedicated very real time to it.

Why are artifacts so useful?

Artifacts demonstrate actual user behavior vs. what they’ve reported

Two sales reps (one in Calgary, one in Berkley) used almost identical home grown pricing solutions when no other options were available

The above is an example from a field study I conducted with medical device sales reps from across the US and Canada. The stakeholders felt that electronic product catalogues would help sales reps improve their numbers. It turned out that most of what they needed was better (and more available) pricing data, as exemplified by pricing sheets they would manufacture weekly and carry with them to every call.

People are notoriously bad self-reporters. Users may, consciously or not, leave out important aspects of their work or misrepresent facts in some. Artifacts represent real qualities of someone’s actual work vs. speculation or hypothetical use.

Whenever a user or stakeholder say they need something specific, I often ask if they’re doing it already in some way? The artifact can demonstrate the actual need vs speculative. This becomes vitally important when you’re deciding on what to include or exclude on a feature set. Artifacts of their work is a strong signal of what they actually value and need.

Artifacts illustrate common needs across users

These three very similar customer-created reports were focused on major feature work (epics in Pivotal Tracker)

User research is most successful when the outcome is a discovered common need (or needs) present across a number of people. This addresses a broad-based necessity of a tool or service, which can translate into larger market for the solution.

Check out these three reports above. I asked a number of Pivotal Tracker customers which reports they create, who they send them to, and what they do with them. Each described reports addressing high-level features, which translate to something called an “Epic” in Pivotal Tracker. They detailed the Epic status (complete, upcoming), the progress made, and when it might be complete. The fact that so many customers were reporting on Epics in one way or another illustrated the common need.

Artifacts frame workflow conversations

Workflow revolved around project management artifacts in this case

A person’s workflow often revolves around or produces artifacts as a result of the process. These can be something as simple as a weekly report or a pricing sheet.

In the context of workflow, artifacts are anything a user produces or relies on in their day-to-day work. These can include something as simple as a pricing guide on their desk, a spreadsheet they keep open all day, or a notebook they carry with them to every meeting. Something seemingly average to them can provide tremendous insight to you.

Starting conversations around artifacts help frame what happens before and after the production or use of an artifact. You, as the interviewer, can ask questions about specific aspects of the artifact that may be mundane or forgotten to them but important to you.

Artifacts can act as a template for designs

A customer report format (on top) was used to create the first version of Pivotal Tracker’s epics report

It’s usually a bad idea to take customer feedback and apply it directly to a design. But sometimes artifacts, especially if you see them regularly, can act as templates for new designs.

To dovetail off of the common needs section above, I was seeing almost the same feature report over and over from customers. I decided to take the general format of this report for our Epics design to test its effectiveness. The plan was to start with this skeleton design and build on it as we received more feedback and became more knowledgeable about customer needs.

Asking for artifacts is easy

It may seem invasive to ask someone to show you their work, but asking users for artifacts is simpler than you may think. Occasionally a person will be resistant to show off their work (usually because it contains confidential information) but 9 times out of 10 they’ll provide it if you ask for it.

The best time I’ve found to ask someone about their artifacts is during in-person visits to their environment. If you’re lucky enough to get access to the person’s office or home, you will likely see things on their desk, hanging on the wall, or on their computer. When you see these possible artifacts, ask the user what they mean and why they’re important. If they primarily work with a computer, ask them which applications/sites they regularly use in their work.

When you’re talking to someone someone about a process they are involved in, ask about any artifacts that they use. Do they record/manage the process in some way (e.g., in a task manager, spreadsheet)? Do they use any supporting files as inputs? Are there deliverables at the end? Who is the customer of these, producer of these, and what about these artifacts are important? All of these questions help visualize the important parts of someone’s process.