HCDE210 Process Blog 5: User Research

[HCDE 210, University of Washington Seattle, Winter 2016]
February 17, 2016
User Research Sprint Process Blog

Sample of the field notes taken during the observation session (left) and the viewing location for said observation session (right)

During this process, we experienced the process of user research in terms of observation and identifying practices. This was done by directly observing the users in question and from this, identifying problematic/good parts of their experience in the given environment or with specific designed objects. I chose to observe individuals sitting in the atrium of the Odegaard Undergraduate Library (University of Washington, Seattle) and their practices, which included but were not limited to their practices concerning sitting, laptop use, napping, phone use, and interactions with other people. I chose to observe them from the desks located along the railing overlooking the Odegaard atrium, which allowed me to observe them inconspicuously under the guise of being “just another student at Ode”. Field notes were recorded in a notebook and a memo written up (see below).

User Research Memo
User Research Memo. Copyright Ostin Kurniawan, Feb 2016drive.google.com

Something that could have been focused on more during the observation process would be identifying the little things in what we could consider the “mundane”, and I found these extremely difficult to identify when I was doing my observations, as they were, by definition “mundane” and “boring”. However, I have come to understand that the “mundane” and the “boring” often includes the data that is most useful in creating user-centered products — by identifying the subconscious practices that these users have — what they do without thinking, how they naturally interact with the products at hand, we can better serve these users through thoughtful design.

Area/environment being observed (Odegaard Undergraduate Library), photo courtesy of UW Office of Planning and Budgeting

Wildcard question: What are some insights that you gained through this activity?
Some insights that I gained through this activity include the importance of detaching your previous experiences from the observations that need to be conducted (“objectivity”) and the importance of “active” observation. 
RE: Objectivity: Allowing our previous experiences (especially if you’re a frequent user of the product/space) at hand to influence the observations conducted introduces a significant amount of bias and renders much of the observations skewed, or in the worst case, irrelevant. 
RE: Active observation. When we initially think about “observation”, its immediate connotation is that of a passive activity in which we just sit down and watch. However, when the obseravtion concerns design and the specific use-cases of the users, this process is highly active and is not “passive”, but rather is a constant process of watching, deciphering what each person is doing and the specific nuances and subconscious practices that each person expresses. This process of active observation is especially important when we observe practices that may normally be considered somewhat “mundane”.

It would be ignorant to disregard the degree of influence that my preconceived expectations of the users in question played a role in my observations. As a frequent user of that space myself, it was hard to separate my own opinions of the space and its difficulties/benefits from the objective observations I was tasked to do; not-infrequently, I must say that I asked myself what was wrong with the space and what I didn’t like about it rather than inferring that from the behaviour and actions of the people being observed. Thus, I feel that it would be important to approach this type of task with a mindset that is inherently “blank” and separated from emotion, and ideally, that these types of observations are conducted by individuals that have never been in that specific environment before and thus have no preconceived expectations of the behaviour of the users being observed. This would provide the most objective, in-depth, and most probably most useful data on the users, for use in our designs.

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