Ask! The value of user research

Fowlam’s CEO Frances Brown talks about the value of user research

When I engage with a company that is new to user research, the first question I’m usually asked is how I’m going to find out what users want? Often someone will tell me that they’ve already analysed their analytics data in-depth and they still can’t figure out what’s going on, so how am I going to do any better than that? After all, data shows everything doesn’t it? The click rate and conversion rate should reveal whatever there is to know, surely?

Analytics data tells you how many people visited your site or downloaded your product. It tells you how long they read an article or how often they used an app. But it doesn’t tell you why they did those things. And more importantly, it doesn’t tell you anything at all about the users who didn’t show up – those valuable people who could be your customers but, for some reason, aren’t. Without the why you essentially know nothing – you have a heap of useless, meaningless data.

So how do you find out the why? You identify the user and you talk to them. You ask.

Given how basic and familiar asking questions is, you’d be surprised how often this suggestion is met with uncertainty or even rejection. People don’t know what they want, I’m told, asking them is a waste of time.

It’s true that asking a user ‘what do you want’ is a waste of time, especially when you’re developing a completely new product – no user is going to be able to design your product for you, and that’s not the goal anyway. User research is about understanding what the user needs, not by asking them directly but through careful questioning that gives you a clear and vivid picture of their world, so you can understand what your product must do in order to become an indispensable part of that world – a product they can’t do without.

Designing the questions that will give you that picture is a mixture of both science and art – it requires a nuanced understanding of how best to get at a particular piece of information, combined with a sensitivity to the social situation that interviewing a person creates. If you ask questions that are too restrictive and closed  – do you buy shoes every month? do you prefer shopping online to shopping in person? – you will get clear ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers but you won’t get any rich information around why people behave or feel the way they do. If you ask questions that are too vague and open – what do you buy every month? what sort of shopping do you like best? – you’ll get confusing answers from users who interpreting your questions in a variety of different ways. Restrictive questioning can lead the user to feel they are being forced into an answer that isn’t correct (and you’d be surprised how much this annoys people – they don’t like to misrepresent themselves, even in an anonymous survey). Vague questioning can lead a user to become flustered and even upset as they try to give an answer without really understanding what they’re being asked.

Clear questioning that gives rich responses – tell me about the last time you bought a pair of shoes; what causes you to choose to shop online over shopping in person? – allows you get at what exactly it is that is driving a person’s choices and decisions, and that is where the real nuggets of insight lie. A user won’t design your product for you, but they may well drop a huge idea in your lap, one you would never have thought of if you hadn’t spoken to them. They are experts on their own life, the life that you are hoping to be a part of, and, as any user researcher knows, their generosity in sharing that expertise is often very surprising.

If you want to know if your product will be a success, ask the experts – your users.

If you would like to know more about user research feel free to contact us.

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