User Research Sprint
User research is likely the broadest subject in user-centered design, taking many different forms from surveys to focus groups and expert interviews. The goal of user research is to identify which people are doing what practices in which places. In our research this week we focused on the observation method.
How to watch people
Our task this week was to perform user research around commuting using observation. I chose Seattle’s Link Light Rail train as my domain since it’s one of the newest additions to Seattle’s public transit system.
So down into the tunnels I went, notebook in hand, ready to record what people used their time down there to do. I jotted notes about what type of people I saw, what practices they were performing, and where they doing these practices.
My findings included people cutting lines to get on the train first, segregating themselves by age on the train (Fig 4), and the lack of cell phone use in the tunnels. One practice I found particularly fascinating occurred at the last train station when there would be two trains waiting to leave, people would get on both, seemingly randomly, even though one was scheduled to depart much sooner.
Considerations for effective observation
Similar to ideation, user research, especially observation, requires quick, precise notes, so it’s important to utilize quick note-taking techniques that allow you to keep your concentration on what’s happening. Furthermore, researchers must be careful not to prescribe intentions to practices they witness, but rather record just the practices themselves in order to keep from adding in their personal biases. Finally, researchers must stay reflexive, understanding that their emotions will no doubt always bias what they collect. In practice it’s not always so easy to be able to see where your biases are turning up, and experience is required to perfect these skills.
Where user research can be used
User research is another one of those broad topics related to user-centered design that also has bearings in other disciplines. For example, anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists also perform observation and other user research methods to investigate human behaviors. Marketing agencies also use similar techniques to gauge the effectiveness of their ads among people. For us as UX designers, we’ll be using these practices to study the ways people use both physical and virtual resources, like subway systems and built environments, as well as websites and mobile applications. Through these disciplines we can continue on our journey to make the everyday systems we use easier and more accessible for all the members of society.