User Research

User research is a key aspect in creating a product that is for the people. As a designer it is important to remember that the product you are designing is not for you but for a variety of different people and therefore collecting data for what others need is important. It is, therefore, a key ingredient in innovation. It is about putting yourself in the user’s shoes. The best way to do this is through ethnography.

Ethnography is the study of what people do and why they do it. It is by observing ordinary life, watching how people interact with objects around them and not in an artificial and stimulated environment. The study is rooted in noticing little and unconscious activities in the natural, cultural context that exists.

In this manner, designers can discover simple nuances and discover something absolutely unique. This week in studio, we focused on the importance of ethnography and user research. We learned through a rundown of the process of note taking. Such as, field jottings that turn into field notes or data points and finally into products for external audiences. We then practiced with hands-on observational experience. Through this process, the underlying, “human” effect of human-centered design is highlighted.

Representation and summary of observation


To practice our observational and ethnography skills, the project was set up as this: ‘visit a location where commuting happens and notice common practices’.

While deconstructing the project problem statement, there were a few factors to be considered. A location that was usually busy would allow more observation opportunities, however an overly crowded location would be sensory overload. Therefore, picking a middle ground, I chose the bus stop on the corner of University Way NE and Campus Parkway NE, Seattle.

Our aim was to identify common practices at the bus stop. From people usng the buses to those waiting at the bus stops. The location had much to offer — from people waiting in groups to solo travellers. From college students, bikers, to handicapped old ladies. There were people drinking coffee, scrolling through their phones, reading books. People got onto the bus with ease while others needed a ramp.

Field jottings

One practice in particular stood out to me — the use of the bus door railings. Not a lot of people use the railings to get onto the bus, however it is a vital part of the bus itself and is designed for safety and support. This prompted multiple design challenges. Would the material of these railings have a different effect on the grip and usage? Would changing the location of these handles make users more prone to use them?

This informtation was collected along with an appendix of 5 pages of field notes/ jottings and collated into a PDF.

This process of observation made one think of what users do differently than how you would do it. Given that this is a bus stop used by me on a daily basis, it is important to remember as a researcher that their is reflexivity in what we see. This entails being aware of the effect I would have on the process and taking that into consideration while outlining the outcomes. The activity therefore allows a more deeper understanding in human interaction than the single handed one that you as a single user experiences.

So What?

Human interaction is a key aspect in human centered design and therefore remembering that the designer is not the user of the product helps focus on the targeted audience group. Ethnographic research furthermore allows designers and research streamlessly meld their object into the day-to-day lives of users. Collecting data through observation furthers the idea of aesthetic and how people tend to rely on using particular things over others.

Reflexivity further helps narrow down the prospects of human-object interaction. More often than not, users tend to use applications or objects that are seamlessly integrated into their daily lives rather than having something that they have to adjust to. In doing this field and observational user research allows researchers gather data on what is required to facilitate existence than simply creating new solutions.

By observing for 30 minutes, one of my biggest takeaways included noticing subtle things about people. Rather than watching different people, I spent 15 minutes watching one person and the amount of subtle influences or interactions I picked up on were unbelievable.

The key aspect of this process is to realize all the possible design questions and challenges rather than jumping to a single solution. It is about facilitating accessibility and ease.

Now What?

As a person who jumps to solutions, this activity forced me to look at the human interactions with objects. Rather than answering a solution, this activity prompts you to create your problems. This is particularly helpful for when you are given a project you have no idea where to start with. From interviews where you are nervous, to creating real life solutions this technique of observation is extremely necessary.

The process of ethnography causes big picture thinking. As a next step in the process, deconstructing this data into data visuals is key. Furthermore, it prompts divergent thinking in terms of pushing one to look beyond the ordinary and notice the subtle nuances or mundane activities that could be made easier in day-to-day lives.

This activity of user research can therefore be applied to future internships in the field of design, and research. It can be applied to interviews and even writing scenes so they relate as close to human life as posssible.

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