How to Talk to Users

This month, we are thrilled to invite Karen to join our blog session to share her experiences in user research. Karen is UX consultant with over 9 years of experience working with multinational Fortune 500 companies, startups & nonprofits. Her studies in behavioral psychology have led her onto the path of user experience. We are thrilled that she can share some insights about her work in user research with us. For those who work side by side with product development, a question that's probably never over-obsessed to ask is how to talk to users. Though we can all agree that the work of talking to users can never be over-done, there are a lot of counter-intuitive things that will happen. One thing that we discover in UXTesting, is that what users say doesn’t necessarily align with what they do in real life.

Today we are going to cover 4 questions that are summarized from our talk with Karen. These four questions cover essentially a great part of user research and doing user research in startup. Though the term, user research, sounds really technical, we intend to make this blog friendly for all and excite interest for companies to start talking to users. The questions are as listed:

  1. What are your suggestions to startups for conducting user research and talking to users? What should the workflow look like?
  2. What should people who are inexperienced in user research be aware of when talking to users?
  3. Some companies already have an established UX team, but for those that don’t, what are your suggestions for building a UX team?
  4. What are some traps startup founders should avoid? Or some signs that they are doing it the wrong way?
Without further ado, let’s get started.

1. What are your suggestions to startups for conducting user research and talking to users? What should the workflow look like?

For early-stage startups, it's easy to think that you can’t do much user research because you haven’t built anything and therefore don’t have any users to talk to yet. So instead, some founders will start with spending a lot of time and resources on developing the prototype or product before talking to anyone. Some will even assume that their idea must be new and “innovative” because they don’t see any similar products available in the marketplace yet. (But if you talk to seasoned entrepreneurs, they will tell you this is very likely a bad sign that others have already tried and failed, so you have to really know your market/industry to evaluate if it is actually a worthwhile business opportunity to pursue.)

The truth (as I’ve heard from many founders who’ve learned this the hard way) is that you will save yourself a lot of valuable time and resources - and more importantly, mental headache - if you realize that starting with (at least some) user research will help you make smart design decisions about which features and functions will increase your chances for quickly building traction.

So back to the issue of how to conduct user research without any users yet: start with looking at what people are already doing, i.e. how people currently live without your product.

The strategy is to find users of existing products and learn from them. Those users are a great resource because they are using the product minute-to-minute so they “know” where the holes and gaps are in serving their needs. As a start, it’s possible to glean a lot of information from search engines, online forums, and social media based on the types of questions people ask, what they like to rave (or complain) about, and #protips they choose to share with others. From there, you can find ways to recruit those users to talk to directly - or find good places to conduct field research - in order to uncover more insights and start forming design hypotheses to prototype and validate with more users later on.

(Image 1: find users anywhere)

It’s important to remember that what you’re ultimately trying to do is design a process for changing people’s current behaviors in their daily habits to include your product in their life. And the fact is that the main status quo may be that people are currently doing absolutely NOTHING that will lead them to your product. In many cases, your biggest competitor is actually consumer apathy, and not the potential that there are other competitive products in the marketplace. Your job is to first understand both the mindsets and behaviors of your target audience before you can lay the groundwork for change through the design process.

And yes, you read that correctly, the process of designing a process for behavior change is itself also a process. There are no hard-and-fast formulas or rules to follow because users’ expectations are constantly changing and being changed as they are constantly exposed to new and different products in the marketplace. As such, conducting user research must also be an ongoing process.

2. What should people who are inexperienced in user research be aware of when talking to users?

Talking to people is tricky is because there are many different doors where the conversation can lead. On top of that, there are many different biases in terms of why people say what they say and the biases that you bring to the interaction as well. So there are a lot of moving parts to keep in mind and juggle at the same time before drawing any conclusions. It's also a dynamic that constantly changes as you get new information.

The first thing to be aware of is that the context in which you are talking to people matters a lot. In an interview, you may want to ask questions to distinguish how someone uses a product on a day-to-day basis versus during special occasions or “edge cases”. However, the nature of the one-on-one interview may require a person to recall from memory many specific details, and there also may be limited time to explain in a single interview session -- and they may not be in the direct context of their environment of use. In this case, it's often easy for them to skip over or forget certain details about how they do something that may turn out to be very important for your product design.

(Image 2: different context of use in the office)

For example, let's say you are interviewing people about how they use software at work, such as with an IT application. If you talk to them in their actual office environment, they will have more information that's directly available to them because you're both physically in their place of work. You'll also be able to probe for more specific details based on actual behaviors (or artifacts of behavior) versus if they come to you and are asked the same questions outside of that context.

The second thing to be aware of is that sometimes what people are asking for is actually a proxy for an unspoken need. They say they want one thing but really that “one thing” may actually be a substitute for some other solution that has yet to exist -- which is an indicator to us as designers that there is potential for innovation. It’s cognitively easier for people to quickly suggest a feature they know already exists in the marketplace than it is to think through how technology could or should be implemented in a new way - and the latter is actually our job to figure out.

For example, I was recently conducting research on “smart” speakers and heard a lot of people say "I wish it comes with portable batteries so that I can move it from room to room". Your initial instinct may be to take that feedback at face value and think "okay, we need to go build a portable battery to be innovative" but if you don’t dig deeper, you may miss the real reason why users need this device to be portable in the first place. It turns out that one of the usage scenarios was that people didn’t want the music they were playing to stop when they went to a different room and had to unplug and replug the speakers. So the unspoken need may actually be "I wish the music I’m playing will continue to follow me from room to room" - which is no longer necessarily about the battery (a technical feature) -- or even for the device to be portable (a functional feature) -- and more about the desired experience of music playing continuously.

3. Some companies already have an established UX team, but for those that don’t, what are your suggestions for building a UX team?

The truth about UX is you don't necessarily have someone with a UX title who is specifically responsible for it - at least, not initially - as long as the UX basics are well-understood and the user research work is getting done. As a founder, you can either educate yourself, recruit others, or hire outside consultants - depending on your own strengths and available resources.

“Regardless, I believe it’s necessary for everyone on the team to have some understanding and responsibility in the UX of your product or service.”

At the very least, you want everyone to be able to recognize when a decision being made internally - even if it’s a business decision or technical decision - will have an impact on the end user’s experience. And to know when to bring in the UX resource to assess the impact and plan the UX design accordingly to help manage user expectations when design trade-offs are being made.

The two most common misconceptions I’ve seen in recruiting and utilizing UX resources are the assumptions that 1) you have to hire someone who already has in-depth industry experience, and/or 2) once you are in the development stages, you no longer need a UX resource.

The first assumption that your UX resource must already have related industry experience can actually backfire. It may seem logical that you recruit all team members with the same industry experience, but in my opinion, the trademark of a skilled UX professional is their ability to see how a consumer, who has little or no understanding of the industry, will view the experience of the product as an outsider. Taking the time to ask and understand questions from this outsider perspective is a key asset for a UX resource to uncover design issues that everyone else inside the industry takes for granted.

The second assumption that UX is no longer needed in development is wishful thinking. The reality is that no amount of design documentation or communication can be a complete substitute for the inevitability that the proposed design will still face changes in development. In these situations, it is critical for all decision-makers to understand that changes in business or technical design may inadvertently have a big ripple effect in the user’s experience. This is where your UX resource will be invaluable in providing acceptable - but ideally, exceptional - design alternatives to help manage the impact to end users.

(Image 3: introducing UX to your organization by holding workshop)

4. What are some traps startup founders should avoid? Or some signs that they are doing it the wrong way?

Pitching product is one of the greatest skills of a founder, but it’s also the biggest mistake a founder can make in talking to users. Founders can be too used to pitching out of habit instead of knowing how to ask the right questions to listen for what users really need. It’s also very easy for founders to only selectively listen for feedback they want to hear, because they tend to be very in love with their idea or product, and to overlook signs that should point them in another direction.

If you find you are doing most of the talking or have to do a lot of explaining of how your product works, then you’re wasting the opportunity to learn new insights from the user.

“In this sense, the phrase ‘how to talk to users’ should actually be ‘how to listen to users’ ”

because the desired behavior from a UX perspective is actually listening, not talking. The only talking you should be doing is to ask questions that allow you to get to know the user better, not for the user to get to know your product better.

It can be a difficult concept to fully appreciate and fully practice in real encounters with users. As I mentioned earlier, it also takes a lot of practice to be as aware as possible of the many other biases that can be lead to misguided conclusions from what users say and how they behave. And of course, my own bias is that it may be worthwhile to bring in an outside UX expert to save you valuable time while providing invaluable, actionable insights.

Karen T. Lin

About Karen T. Lin

Karen studied behavioral psychology and interactive design in Boston, Massachusetts, and has over 10 years of experience working with multinational Fortune 500, startup, and non-profit organizations in Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and now Taipei. Her interests in web design started in middle school when she taught herself HTML and continued into high school where she ran the first-ever online campaign for student office - and won. In college, she created and managed the first websites for many campus organizations. Now as a UX consultant and coach, Karen works with the belief that successful human-to-computer interaction (HCI) starts with developing a deep understanding of the human-to-human interaction (HHI). She can also be found advocating #UX and #startup happenings around the world: @karenTL.