User research can take a variety of forms, including the user empathy that I did for User Oriented Collaborative Design at Olin, quantitative surveys that I did for Stever Robbins Inc, or simply sitting down with dozens of molecular biologists for user interviews for my own startup.
After talking to users about their needs, there comes a point where you cannot understand anything more deeply until you have lived it youself. Unfortunately, it’s often impossible to live the full experience without an impractical amount of training and equipment, but even compromises can often yield great insights. For a class at Olin titled User Oriented Collaborative Design, my team was tasked with understanding the needs of the people who do power line repair. We started with internet research (where I fell in love with Chick Herrin’s country-themed odes to the lineman lifestyle), moved on to user interviews, and then donned some of their discarded safety equipment.
I climbed into a trash can, which approximated the cramped lift buckets, and tested our foam prototype. There is a huge difference between reading “cramped” in your notes and feeling like you’re about to topple right over the edge! I maintained my balance long enough to document the detailed user workflow, and we were able to add it to our deepening understanding of our user’s needs.
While understanding a user’s stated needs is important, a wide body of research clearly demonstrates that what people say they want can differ tremendously from their ‘revealed preferences’. Combining a qualitative understanding with a quantative analysis will magnify the effects of both, and I’ve been able to do so in several instances.
While working for Stever Robbins Inc, I was responsible for analyzing our users’ behavior for both the CEO and the firm’s outside marketing consultants. I tracked results from hundreds of tweets, emails, and survey responses. The goal was simple – figure out what people wanted to buy, and what benefits they hoped to get from their purchases. In some cases, the results would begin to suggest that a specific product line was not feasible, in which case I had to make the call about when to raise the red flag to the rest of the team. Often, though, the analysis could be combined with the qualitative information that I’d also gathered to suggest a way forward.
On Stever’s recommendation, another CEO approached me to determine if I could deliver similar results to her business. With the experience that I’d gained from working with customer relationship databases, I was able to quickly determine what information was available for use, find opportunities to make data-backed strategic decisions, and recommend future data gathering practices.
- Researched, interviewed and immersed myself in a wide range of user groups, including line workers and molecular biologists
- Quantitatively researched users and customers, using data drawn from social media, email response rates, and surveys
- Synthesized research and communicated results along with strategic recommendations
“If your product had existed 6 months ago, I wouldn’t have quit my job”
– A (former) member of my user group