Observing Unique User Experiences

About embracing user research in the wild

I read a lot about user-centered design and user-centered process when designing digital products. The premise that one must be aware of business goals, but ultimately focus on the user goals and experience is paramount in the modern design field. In all my years of design, however, I see that we say our process is user goal centered, but we assume too much, and we forget that designing for user goals means nothing if you don’t have the user experience in mind. Then, how do we know that we are hitting the goal, and are also mindful of the user experience overall?

We are hypocrites

How many times have you conducted objective user research on your product? Did your product manager test the prototype and was satisfied? Was that enough for you? And you’re an advocate of user testing and user centered design, right?

More than once, I've seen in-house design and development teams “test” a product and changing it based on personal opinions and shallow screen reviews. Some teams go as far as to create terrible static or semi-dynamic prototypes, set up a few “testing” sessions and start building based on the feedback they got. I have even seen focus group sessions as a way to gather feedback.

I am not saying that lean user research / testing techniques are not good techniques, because it just depends on the product and the development phase that you’re in. What I really want to say is that they’re not enough, and won’t give you a good picture of the real user experience in context.

Make observations a part of the design process

Watching users interact with the product in real time is the best way to assess whether or not it is working for them, the way that you intended. Many of us still rely on self-reported user feedback. We release our product and expect people to report the issues, and give us suggestions for improvement. This is all good, but again, not enough and not quite as exciting and insightful as observing them miss the button, or take a different and unexpected path as they were using the product.

The more you watch users, the better you understand them

Experiences with digital products are unique, and context is important. More than ever with the different modes of access, people address the need to access your product from their own unique perspective. Everyone has different expectations, their own familiarity with different design patterns, and specific motivations to use the product. Your job is to find out those “specifics”, and to align your product to address “most” needs to provide the “best” experience for all of them.

Be comfortable with the wild experience

To watch your product “in the wild” can be incredibly liberating. It will inspire you to seek ways to really make a difference for those who had trouble with your product, and it will delight you to watch those who got in and got what they needed out of it.

Do not be afraid of progressive improvement

You already know that digital products are iterative in nature, your first releases won’t be perfect. If you can test many times and iterate without releasing fully, then you’re lucky. If you have to quickly deliver the value but don’t have resources to test fully, test in the wild and be ready to quickly resolve the issues to make your product the best it can be.

Go out and watch your product BE experienced! You’ll be glad you did.

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