Inclusive Software
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Inclusive Software

User Research Only Covers Users

a user is someone who has a relationship with your organization

When you say the word “user,” you mean someone who has already reached out to your products and services. When an organization puts resources toward “user research,” “usability,” and “big data,” they are only covering their own perspective. They are looking at people through the lens of their products and services. This leaves them with blind spots.

There is another way to understand people which is well known in the realm of ethics. It’s called futures research and aims to explore a “cone” of possibilities, tag which are probable, and emphasize those that are preferable. Cennydd Bowles explains futures research in terms of the technology world in his book Future Ethics. The first key point in the book is that most organizations are ignoring people who think differently than they expect. These organizations are not aware of the knowledge they’re missing and don’t reach out to the people they are ignoring, even though there may be a lot of opportunities they would want to support.

A user is someone who has a relationship or potential relationship with the organization. No matter what word you substitute for user, like customer, passenger, consumer, client, patron, member, civilian, etc., it is still a noun describing someone with a relationship to your organization. Innovation and design efforts are framed through the lens of existing offerings or ideas. Thinking starts at the point where you already are and radiates out. But the effort gets weaker as it gets farther from the starting point. Design Thinking explores the problem as a first step–which is imperative but usually done quickly at a surface level. To define the problem, Design Thinking encourages deliberate poking at the edges of what the user is doing. But that’s starting with the solution at the middle, because of that word “user.”

When you start ideation from the perspective of the user/solution, exploration gets weaker as you move farther out.

There’s another way of defining the problem starting with a person in the middle, which is the concept at the foundation of futures research. This other perspective starts by identifying people who are aiming at purposes that you have the ability to support, then stepping away from that ability entirely to understand their inner thinking, emotional reactions, and guiding principles as they work toward their purpose. Leave tasks and goals behind for a while. It is powerful to understand people as people–not as users. You find out how people reason and act independently of your organization. You discover new thinking styles and approaches you hadn’t realized were important before.

If you start from the perspective of a person working on a purpose, you uncover new perspectives.

You can intentionally work on understanding the people you have ignored, and uncover more assumptions and ignorance within your organization. You can uncover the ways unconscious bias is coded into your products and services. You can realize how experiences you’ve designed harm people, and work to correct that. You can create different ways of supporting different thinking styles. Problem space research is a solid foundation for product strategy, no matter which design method you follow into the solution space.

Very few organizations actually sit down and listen to people deeply. Some depend on research done by other organizations, which frequently relies on quantitative data and makes demographic assumptions about people they have not actually spent time listening to. Very few organizations are taking this step back to get a better perspective about people. (This is your chance to get ahead of everyone else or forge an entirely new direction.)

User research is only a small part of understanding your business opportunities. Once a year take off your employee hat and step away from constantly thinking about solving things, so that your mind is open to absorb other perspectives. Then generate your ideas from this knowledge, or at least see if what you’re doing matches what people are aiming for or if it harms them. Stepping back to get this bigger picture will inform your organization’s roadmap, spark ideas, and blaze new trails to support the different philosophies people follow to achieve their purposes.

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