Wine & Design

How we used a participatory user research event to understand people’s emotional needs around tech support


Imagine this: your Internet has stopped working. You try resetting the router and turning your computer on and off, but nothing happens. Reluctantly, you call the customer care number to try and get the problem fixed. You dread picking up the phone because you know it’s going to be a painful experience… and it usually is.

Here at GoToAssist, we want to change that experience by making a product that is focused on helping companies provide awesome, end-user focused support. This is a tall order, because it means we’re building a product to work well for our primary user (tech supporters and customer care reps), but we always want to keep the end user — the person receiving support — in mind.

Earlier this year, we realized we were making a lot of assumptions about people getting technical support. We had conducted a few interviews and understood the steps users go through to get help, but we didn’t feel like we were getting to the heart of the problem. We wanted to find out answers to questions like: What are people’s needs, on a basic level, when it comes to getting tech support? What are the emotions that they experience when they get support? And how should an ideal support experience feel?

We knew the answer to these questions wouldn’t come from more interviews, so we decided to host a participatory design event to learn about people’s emotions and unmet needs. In this post, I’ll take a look at what happened during the event, what came out of it, and what we learned.

What we did

In order to keep participants engaged and in the right mindset, we came up with four different activity stations to go through in order. Here are the stations we created:

  • An “emotional image wall”. We prompted participants to choose images that represented the best and worst customer support experiences they’d ever had. They chose images (both positive and negative) and wrote a sentence about why each image resonated with them. Our goal was to get insight into the emotions associated with customer support experiences — both good and bad.
Writing about support experiences at the image wall station
  • A collage station. We asked people to create a collage that represented an ideal customer support experience, and then we video recorded them explaining it to us. Our goal with this was to encourage people to express their emotional needs and desired process for customer support.
A participant creates a collage portraying an “ideal support experience”
  • Concept testing booths. We had some ideas for products that could improve customer support experiences, so three team members showed storyboards to participants and asked for feedback.
Julia tests a concept with one of our participants
  • A sketching table. We thought that after going through the three other stations, people might be inspired to come up with their own ideas for products to improve customer support, so we set up a table with pens and paper where they could sketch to their hearts’ content.

We hosted the session from 4–7 pm on a Thursday at our Copenhagen office lunch room space, since right after work seems to be the best time for maximum participation. We also bought a lot of snacks, wine, and beer to provide a bit of a party atmosphere and help people feel comfortable expressing themselves.

What came out of it

At the end of the event, we had a great deal of data: nine collages, a couple hours of video and sound recordings, and a huge stack of papers with participants’ notes from the image board. After spending a few days going through the raw data we realized that the insights could be organized into two groups:

  1. Qualities of an ideal support experience
  2. Qualities of a terrible support experience

Seems almost too simple, right? But within those two categories, we felt that we’d finally uncovered people’s real emotions around support experiences. This enabled us to come up with a set of principles for the best end user support experience. In the weeks after the event, I presented these principles to our product teams, and we are using them as we go forward with designing our products.

What we learned

The Wine and Design event was an experiment for us, and being designers, we’re always looking for ways to improve. Here’s our opinion, in the end, of what worked and what could have been better.

What worked well

  • The image wall and collage station resonated with participants and truly helped us to understand their emotional experiences. We think this is because we chose a wide range of images, made sure people understood the prompts, and focused not on the particular images chosen, but on why people chose certain imagery. The insights from the written comments and video recordings were extremely useful.
  • The food and drinks were a big hit and encouraged participants to stick around for several hours.
  • The event itself generated a lot of excitement among the product team, and we “encouraged” (that is, bribed/persuaded) the whole team to help out with setup, welcoming, and facilitating at the booths. It was a unique way to include everyone — developers, designers, and product managers — in understanding our users.

Some tips, or what we would improve next time

  • Start with a very simple warmup task. Our participants seemed caught off-guard by the image wall station; they weren’t expecting to have to do something so “creative” and because of this, it took them longer than we expected to choose images and write about them.
  • Give time constraints and keep participants moving. After spending a great deal of time at the image wall, some of our participants were reluctant to move on to the collage station, so everyone participated in the first booth but only about half created collages. Those who did spent a long time lovingly perfecting their collages. While we appreciated the effort, it meant that the booth was busy and congested. Stricter time limits would help people to not worry about making it perfect and to keep moving.
  • Set up stations that can be visited in any order. This would probably also help with flow and congestion issues.
  • Have tasks that don’t require “artistic” skills. Most of the general public gets scared when you ask them to do anything creative (including drawing, sketching, and coloring), and we think people avoided the sketching booth for this reason. We recommend having simple activities that are participatory, but aren’t perceived as requiring any artistic talent.

We hope reading this article has helped you to come up with some ideas for how you can go beyond the interview and learn about your users in a more creative way. We found that the participatory activities helped us to get in-depth, rich insights into participants’ emotions and needs. Plus, we showed the whole product team that understanding users can be a lot of fun (especially finishing off all that extra wine).

Do you have any other tips for participatory design sessions, or stories about when it’s worked well for you? Let us know in the comments!