Can you read my mind?
Fowlam’s CEO Frances Brown talks about why user research isn’t about reading users’ minds but about using tried and tested methods to identify where your product fits in their lives.
User research is now recognised as an important part of designing products and services that meet users’ needs. But, in my experience, there tends to be a lack of understanding of what effective user research looks like – too often there is the assumption that it simply involves asking users what they want, and then giving them that. Then, when users can’t say what they want, or turn out not to actually want the thing they asked for, the response is to declare users fickle and unreliable and user research pointless.
User research that simply asks users what they like or what they want is pointless. Well-designed user research that gets to the core of how users engage with the world through evidence-based methods is far from pointless – in fact, it is what will separate your product from the thousands of others every year that fail due to lack of market need.
It seems to me that the lack of understanding of user research is linked to a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of disciplines that try to explain human behaviour, like psychology.
When I was studying Applied Psychology as an undergrad, I was surprised at the number of people who genuinely believed that I could tell things about them just by talking to them, that essentially I could read their minds through my fantastical psychologist powers. If they could have seen what we actually did all day in UCC’s psychology department – the afternoon spent with ping pong ball halves over our eyes was particularly memorable – they would have understood that far from simply reading people’s minds, any knowledge we gained had to be arrived at through very careful and painstaking study that often only revealed very tiny amounts of information about the incredibly complex workings of the human brain.
Psychology isn’t about delving into the secret thoughts and feelings of people, it’s about trying to find and understand patterns of behaviour through careful and considerate observation, experimentation and analysis. Far from being a fluffy discipline filled with thoughts and feelings, it is in many ways as data-focused and rigorous as any of the ‘hard’ sciences.
It is possible and valid to ask people what they think and feel and about what they do in certain situations – it can give you informative (but not necessarily instructive) data on thoughts, feelings and actions. But, if you ask people why they feel or think or do those things, or worse still, what they might feel, think or do in a theoretical situation, chances are you’re going to get very unreliable results.
But why? We should all know why we think and feel and act the way we do, right? All we need to do is think about our thoughts and feelings and then we’ll know exactly how the process works. That’s exactly what the first people who called themselves ‘psychologists’ believed. Introspection, the examining of one’s own thoughts and feelings, was one of the first approaches ever used in psychology when it was an entirely new discipline back in the 18th century, the belief being that looking inwards would provide a wealth of answers about the human mind. It turns out, however, that we’re really awful at explaining our own thoughts and actions. Far from being able to read each other’s minds, we can’t even read our own very reliably. Research has shown, for example, that we tend to explain our own behaviour with reference to factors outside of our control (eg I didn’t say hello to her because the baby kept me up and I’m really tired), while we explain the behaviour of others with reference to internal, stable characteristics (eg she didn’t say hello to me because she’s a horrible, snobby person).
Sometimes, we can’t account for our behaviour at all, or are even horrified by how we behave, the classic example being Milgram’s famous study, in which ordinary people obeyed commands to fatally electrocute another person, simply because the person giving the commands appeared to have authority and told them to do it.
So if you can’t just ask users what they want, what can you do?
Just as psychology isn’t about ‘reading people’s minds,’ user research isn’t about getting people to tell you why they do things, or why they like or dislike something. You may well ask users questions, lots of them, but the questions you ask have to be very carefully designed to get at what it is exactly that is driving user behaviour – and ‘what do you want?’ generally isn’t one of them.
User research is about giving you practical insight into the role your product is going to play in people’s lives. It’s about clearly defining the problem your product is trying to solve by using in-depth questioning and a variety of tried and tested methods to observe and understand your user’s behaviour and responses – behaviour and responses that they may or may not be able to provide an explanation for, or even remember very clearly. It’s about providing the hands-on knowledge of your users that will allow your designers and developers to make solid, evidence-based decisions about how your product will function. It takes the costly guess-work out of design and greatly increases the chances that your product will be a success.
Whether users like your product or not, if it doesn’t fit with how they conduct their day to day life, or solve a problem that they actually have, they simply won’t use it. Without this clear understanding of where your product might fit in to people’s lives, there is a danger that you will be solving a problem that doesn’t exist, or solving an existing problem in a way that your users just won’t engage with. Even if you’re absolutely certain that there’s a market need for your product, user research will allow you to capitalise on that knowledge by creating a design that not only meets the market need, but also meets the needs of the user – a product they’ll love.
If you would like us to carry out user research for you, or you would like user research training or advice, contact us.