My love / hate relationship with users

Simon  Mathews

September 13, 2011

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Here at Extractable we employ a data-driven user experience design approach. That is a rather formal way of saying that we gather as many types of user behavior inputs into the design process as possible, from deep web analytics through user concept testing and full user testing. And once live, aggressively optimize our sites based on actual usage patterns.

In the last few weeks we have been working on a series of contextual user interviews, user concept testing and formal usability testing for a range of clients including a b2b semiconductor manufacturer, a consumer facing financial services startup, and a credit union.

This is where both my frustration and love of users kicks in.  Just on Friday we were sitting with one user (contextual, at his desk) for a couple of hours. At one point he was searching on our client's current site for a specific document - a document that was highlighted (in bold with a big icon) on top right of the page. He diligently scrolled through pages of document listings below the fold, clicked on every tab and scanning the page as if he were a leopard stalking its prey. All to no avail. He never saw the document icon/link that probably took up 15% of the page real-estate.

Throughout this process I had to physically hold my arm from pointing at the screen and my tongue from shouting out some expletive along the line of "What is that big red thing in the corner"!

Of course I exaggerate my reaction, but it was a frustrating experience as the user was not doing what I, or the rest of our design team, were expecting them to do. And this is why I love data based on real users and their real behaviors. They challenge us to think beyond our expectations of what they should be doing and especially to challenge the perceived wisdom that can exist in many companies,  often of the form, "no, our customers don't want to do that". This challenge, knowing that each of our ideas will need to successfully run the gauntlet of user research and testing, pushes us to think wider, deeper and hopefully, more innovatively.

Plus sometimes user research delivers incredible insights, like the user last week that had pretty much downloaded the entire product catalog of our client and all its competitors, and had then built out his own taxonomy to store all the files!  That one session gave us more insight into how their users see the client's products than many hours of stakeholder sessions with the client's product managers did.

But, of course, not every session delivers such value.  One testing participant when asked what else she might want to see on the test site answered "More information". When asked what type of information, she responded "just more information".   Which takes me back to my starting point, I love users and all the things we learn from them to help us deliver rich user experiences, but sometimes it can be quite a challenging experience for the user experience design team.