User Research

In studio, we worked on our ability to observe the three P’s of User Research — People in Places doing Practices. To begin with, our descriptions were very vague or assumptive, such as “looking at art” or “being bored” as we see here.
We then went in depth on our description of “looking at art”. How exactly did we know they were looking at art? In theory, we have no idea of knowing if they were ‘looking at art’ or not — we only have their actual actions that led us to that conclusion. These objective observations are what user research is about — one needs to describe, not prescribe, the actions they observe.

This sprint had us develop our skills of user research — that is, watching people in places doing practices, something done in many different industries to gather information about how their products are received/used, or to spot needs and problems that arise.

We began by practicing in studio. We first came up with hypothetical practices we may see on a trip to the art museum. This helped us understand the importance of describing the actions we observe rather than prescribing; any intent we might portray in our observations (e.g., “a lot of people looking sad”; “people goofing off”; “people wanting to go home”) must be broken up into the actual actions we saw (e.g., “at least three people crying”; “lots of people playing League in the library”; “people checking their watches a lot”).

After discussing the hypothetical, we actually went out to observe students in different study locations and observe their study practices. We shared our findings and looked for common practices and what those practices might communicate.

“Getting comfortable” wasn’t descriptive enough, so those who made that observation went more in depth to describe the individual actions that made up the process of “getting comfortable”.

The Sprint

The design sprint involved settling down at either a bus stop or a food market, pulling out the figurative binoculars [we’re no bird watchers — no, we are people watchers!], and simply recording everything we could for 30 minutes.

I personally chose to observe at a bus stop, as it’s a much more familiar environment than a food market for me. For half an hour, I just sat at a busy bus stop and wrote down everything I saw people do. This time, I kept the five P’s in mind: people in places doing practices and having problems — which lead to possibilities.

My field notes from 30 minutes at a bus stop.

Reflection

Something to focus on as I continue doing user research in the future is not overlooking anything. Especially when one is observing practices in a familiar environment, there will be behaviors or other phenomena that one is so used to that they do not even notice, or that one considers so common and un-noteworthy that it isn’t written down or explored. These are two major downfalls when it comes to user research; people can have very selective attentions, especially when they have decided they are looking for a specific type of thing. I’ll be sure to record with a group the next time I do user research, just to make sure I am not overlooking something that could end up being important.

Wildcard

What other applications can you find for user research in your own life, outside the context of design?

As a lover of art and of comics — especially “alternative”, autobiographically-styled ones — I think doing some more user research could benefit me not only in helping me notice design possibilities, but also in giving me inspiration for drawings and comics based on the interactions I see and the weird, “unexpected” tidbits that emerge when you watch others. Paying close attention to the practices of others is not something I often do; however, it’s a real hidden goldmine for all sorts of inspiration.

Reflexivity

I mentioned before that human error or unintentional bias can lead to the overlooking of important data. Personally, I think this is the most likely way that I could cause detriment to my own research; I don’t really stand out or interfere in the environment, if I have reactions to what I see I just state the facts in my notes, etc. However, another way that I could have influenced my own research was in the way I decided to record my data (just on a notepad), and my actions during the research (kept to myself).

In the specific context of sitting alone on a bus stop bench where no one else was paying attention to me, I don’t think those actions interfered with my research too much. However, in separate contexts they could. If I were in a more fast-paced environment, or in a very loud environment, or in a very visually unique environment etc, frantically trying to jot everything down would NOT result in very reliable data. Although it may be much more conspicuous (depending on the environment), using photos or videos to take data may provide more accurate results than always writing.

Similarly, if I were in a more social environment than the bus stop, my sitting in the corner and keeping to myself while writing could go against the “norm” for the situation. If it’s a party, let’s say, then the sight of my apparent introversion may actually dampen the mood, and affect my research.

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