You are not your user: Mechanical insight from design research

I’m perching on a rickety stool in a garage’s tiny windowless office, holding a clipboard and a pen. A small disposable beige plastic coffee cup rests discarded on a desk and the smell of engine oil permeates the room.


Bowing dusty shelves line the walls enduring decades’ worth of well-thumbed Haynes manuals for vehicles we have known and loved, interspersed with boxes of small engine parts and gold-framed photographs of vintage cars and family.

Alan*, the amiable chief mechanic and proprietor sits beside me, a grey haired fellow in his early 70s wearing a set of greasy blue overalls.

I’m here to run user research on the new MOT system for the DVSA. We’ve been asked to work alongside their technologists to uncover insight and provide recommendations around the way the complex system can best support a multitude of different user groups.

The MOT system is a database of UK vehicles and their test results. Each time a vehicle is tested, a mechanic needs to register it in the system and log any failures or advisories. This is digital service design and in this case, it’s a system that needs to neatly segue with an offline process, so we need to observe people using it in real life situations.

Together with DVSA staff we’ve been travelling all over the UK to do this — Snowdonia, Scotland, Southampton, Birmingham and South Wales — but today we’ve travelled through winding hedge-lined lanes, over leafy hills and through bucolic valleys to reach the heart of rural Devon.

Garages authorised to run MOT tests come in all shapes and sizes. Some are gargantuan gleaming Mercedes dealers pushing through 50 tests a day, while others consist of a local mechanic and son on first name terms with their customers (and their cars). The system needs to work for everyone, and judging by the frown on the face of today’s interviewee as he stares in deep concentration at the screen, it probably needs to work hardest for him.

The UK government has a digital inclusion scale designed to help service owners and designers think about levels of digital competency when creating a system. At one end sit people who have never been online and are resistant to anything digital, while at the other are people who tame technology to their needs. Today’s interviewee would probably be categorised as ‘reluctantly online’ or ‘learning the ropes’. He struggles with most interactions, which is why, in his own words, he gets his son to “do the technology”.

But as an MOT tester he needs to be able to use the new system which is why we’ve travelled all this way and why I’m watching him staring intently at the screen.

We often use a research technique known as ‘think out loud’ where we ask people to describe what they’re thinking as they interact with a system. I’ve explained this today but he’s forgotten and I’m giving him time to think. I’ve asked him to show me how he would go about starting an MOT test.

I know quiet pauses often precede useful insight, so I wait until the silence — broken only by the clicking of the mechanical clock — becomes deafening. I do my best to focus on the screen and not on the ‘car’ calendar visible in my peripheral vision. At any moment, I’m expecting him to click on the one huge green button, labelled ‘Start MOT’.

Eventually he speaks:

“I’ll be honest, I have absolutely no idea why it’s talking about my home because this is my work.”

Now it’s my turn to be slightly lost for words as I try to understand his comment. I stare at the screen. Then it dawns on me, the page heading — which I’ve seen so many times it’s become invisible — reads: ‘Your home’.

To anyone familiar with digital, the word homepage is part of their lexicon, but for people who aren’t regularly online it’s less familiar. Once the label evolves from ‘Homepage’ to ‘Your home’, it becomes increasingly open to interpretation.

So in this instance, the label of ‘Your home’ is completely blocking the mechanic from interacting with the system, because he thinks he is in the wrong part of the system.

But this anecdote isn’t about homepage labels. Yes, there is good practice to be adhered to around orientation, page labelling and system taxonomies, but more importantly this is a useful reminder that your customers or users see your system very differently from the way you or your design team see it. The only way to properly understand their perspective is by talking to them and observing how they interact with it.

Alan struggles through the remainder of the session. Largely his difficulties are because he hasn’t yet learnt the language of a desktop user interface as most of his previous time online has been via tablet.

But I also see him struggle with capitals in passwords due to oily grime hiding the caps light on the keyboard and I see him using printable paper forms in a completely different way from the way the designers envisaged. None of these insights would have been clear without watching people use the system in anger in real situations.

In an age of digital tools and automated usability tests for gathering behavioural data and customer feedback, there is still no substitute for getting out there and conducting face to face research with service users in their natural environment.


* Names and locations have been changed