Overcome the fear of “real” users

Ingrid Domingues

During my years in the field of designing digital solutions and coaching, I have observed many businesses that hinder teams from meeting with users. Instead, they prioritize proxy users in design and innovation processes simply because they actually believe that proxy users have an aggregated knowledge that users lack.

Meeting with proxy users is a good way to start the learning process about users. It will help you learn the users’ context, which words to use, etc. But there is an  unwillingness to stretch out to “real users” based in fear. Over the years, I think I have debugged the reasons behind this fear, and hope this can help others. The clients actually believe that:

  1. You will make promises to them that can never be met. This is usually an objection by sales or marketing organisations.

  2. You will reveal secrets that are, or could be, restricted by patent. This is usually an objection by marketing, brand or juridical departments.

  3. You will take a lot of time from users’ work, which will hinder them. This is usually an objection from solution owners or line managers.

  4. It will be expensive, since you will need to meet with many, many individuals/different  markets/places. This is usually an objection by people who are used to demographically focused research, or who really like quantitative research.  

  5. They have so many different needs that it will be confusing and a waste of their and your time. This is usually an objection from someone that spent a lot of time understanding how different user needs are in different markets, organizations and other settings.   

When you suspect that any of these objections will come up, be prepared.

One good exercise to break through this fear is to ask your boss to explain in detail how they wash their hair. Write down everything they say on a whiteboard. After she is finished, you can surely find some steps that she omitted. Did she check that the water is the right temperature? Did she put the shampoo within reaching distance? How did she decide when the rinse is clear, etc?

This will show her one thing: That humans simply cannot describe all their needs for digital services. The fact  is that if we base solutions only on what people can notice or recall, the solutions will be dreadful to use. This, in turn, will not generate the desired impact on business. We need to meet with users and observe them in their context.

Also, at the start of an initiative, and certainly before starting to plan for user research, explain that: 

  • Meeting with users means listening - not interrupting, giving out secrets or making promises. When meeting with users at their workplace, we mostly observe and talk during natural pauses or breaks. We want to learn about the real context, and that cannot be done by intervening.
  • Meeting with users is not just hearing what they say, but understanding what they need and expect. “I want to solve this fast” can mean a lot of things. When meeting with users we are trained to debug what they mean in detail-
  • Meeting with users can be done at a small, medium or large scale, depending on what we search for. It is better to do some small research than none. Meeting with 5-15 users will give a great understanding. We do insights research - not market research.
  • Meeting with users means that we will find patterns. Even when users at first sight seem to work or act differently (that is very common in large organizations), we are always able to find behavior patterns that can guide design and prioritization. This will help immensely in large organizations.

When you break through this fear of giving access to users, the possibilities are endless. Learning directly from users about their needs and expectations is the highway to innovation and design that makes an impact.

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