Design Thinking places the USER at the core of designing products, services and experiences. The idea is that you will make a better whatever-you-aim-to-make, if you understand your audiences’ need. So, an important part of the design-thinker’s job is conducting user-research. User-research in Design Thinking methods is the love child of Ethnography and Market Research. It is as immersive as ethnography but happens in the limited time-span and capacity of market research. A good user interaction forms a foundation for the rest of the design journey and ultimately the final outcome. For something so important, there is not enough written about it on the internet or in books.

There are some simple ways of structuring your design-research-interactions to get the most value in limited time. Here are 7 of them, that I did not find in the books but a year of working as a Design Researcher at Turian Labs taught me:

  1. Do not go with a script (in the conversational ethnography)
    First things first, you need not ask all questions on your list to all the users. Know that the quantity of questions is not important, important is the quality of responses you get in the limited time you are allowed. I will even go as far as saying that you will never be able to ask all your questions to one user. So, prioritize, some users have better stories for X and some talk more articulately of Y.
    Keep in mind, users do not respond with the same enthusiasm throughout; aim to complete the interaction in an hour at best unless it is meant to be a ‘day-in-life’ session.
  2. Always, start with making the user comfortable
    Take as long as you may to do that. Tell them what you do, what the aim of the interaction is. Ask them what they do, what they like to do, why they chose a particular job, a college, a city. A good icebreaker is also to start with how nice the day is or how bothersome the rain. Lower their inhibitions before you jump to their cell-phone usage, credit cards, opinion on the new feature in an app etc.
    And be careful; do not cross the line between professional and personal. The user is still the user, you are still the ethnographer, neither a stranger, nor a friend.
  3. Activities are important
    There are different methods apart from asking questions that can get you insightful responses from the users. Activities like Metaphor elicitation, Desirability matrix, Body-storming, Cognitive walkthroughs help rattle the user’s sub-conscious mind and get helpful responses. While there are some already available to study on the internet, some can be designed using ‘projective techniques’ of psychology.
    Activities are important because they help break eye contact, and give you observational details that a user may not articulately tell. Activities aid memory; human minds think better visually.
    Time these activities such that it gives a break from continuous talking.
  4. Mind your questions
    Why’ and ‘how’ are more important that ‘which’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘who’.
    Q: Why did you buy this bag?
    A: Because it’s branded.
    Q: Why is a brand important?
    A: It ensures good quality.
    Q: How does it ensure good quality? ..and so on.
    Do not budge until that string has looped.
    Do not ask leading questions. “Do you think Apple is a better company than Samsung?”
     If you are getting ‘yes’ and ‘no’ for answers, you are doing it wrong. Ask open-ended questions: “What makes you like one brand more than the other?”, instead of “Do you have a preference in brands?”
    Pause after you ask a question. We are uncomfortable with silence and tend to fill it. Don’t. Let it be uncomfortable. Wait for your user to say something.
  5. Small things matter
    The important thing that most people won’t tell you is that small things matter. Do not sit higher than the user and do not stand while the user sits — this implies a hierarchy that you may not desire. Laugh at a joke they crack. If you are using cue-cards, hand it over to the user. It is important to make them a part of the user’s ecosystem. When around the user, do not talk in a language alien to him/her, with your colleagues. Do not finish the interaction abruptly. You must conclude and the story must end. Thank the user for their time and help. Drop them to the door or walk away gently depending on the situation.
  6. Observe
    An ethnographer observes, keenly, minutely; and questions. Why are their books on the table, if he/she likes to read ebooks? Why has this behavior not seeped into his/her children, if it has not? “Users do not know what they want”, Steve Jobs says; and he is right. They might ask for a pen with a tracker so that they don’t lose it. But what will probably suffice is a pen that makes a click when it is clipped on the pocket/bag.
  7. Stay ready to be surprised
    A good ethnographer knows that he/she may not know everything. He is a blank page, a curious mind and a fast learner.

Conducting user-interactions is a dynamic process. There are several things that can make-or-break an interaction. But they cannot be taught or used in a one-size-fits-all manner. The ethnographer has to sense things, learn from experience and do what fits a particular situation. Whatever you do, make sure it comes from a place of empathy. You have to be an empathizer to be a good product designer, a good entrepreneur, an employer, an employee, a good comedian; even the government ideally starts there.