What do they do when they can’t do what they want to do?

5 May 2014

I watched people create forms in a study and saw a creative workaround for an unclear feature.

The model that the participants were copying had a Submit button, and the program automatically inserted one in the form. That seemed like a convenience, but there was no way for users to know that would happen.

There was no way to insert the button because it was automatic. One creative person inserted a text box and made the default value be “Submit”:

One form with a text box that says "Submit" and one with a Submit buttonIt looked like a Submit button, sort of. And it made the participant feel like he accomplished the task, but it was confusing and stressful to figure out.

The lesson is that people often do things we don’t expect. Sometimes customer research like this usability study is the only way to find that out and prepare for it.


How do you know if your customers want that feature you’re planning?

23 Dec 2013

I took a client out to talk with customers about a big new feature they were planning. After just a couple of interviews, it became clear that customers didn’t want the feature. A couple of interviews saved a lot of time and expense.

It’s amazing what you learn by watching and listening. My favorite work these days is customer research. I love learning how people work, and how they think about what they do.

Here’s an overview of customer research along with some favorite methods and examples of important things we’ve learned by listening to customers over the years.

You might see it called different things, like customer research, design research, user experience research and user research. But it’s all about listening and learning.

Why we do customer research

There’s no point in just guessing how people work or think or use your product. As Jakob Nielsen said back in 2004:

“User research is a reality check. It tells you what really happens when people use computers. You can speculate on what customers want, or you can find out. The latter is the more fruitful approach.”


Here are some of the research methods that I’ve used over the years:

  • Customer interviews. Conversations with individual users about an aspect of their work. We might look at the product that we’re interested in, but the main goal is to talk about tasks and needs.
  • Usability studies. A more-structured observation of an individual user working with a product or a prototype. We learn about user behavior, and have a chance to observe actual work, and ask questions while the user is working.
  • Design Workshops. My Design Workshop starts as a brainstorming session, but I ask participants to sketch out their ideas, which makes them think a little harder. It’s a great way to explore concepts or start a new design project.
  • Surveys. This is a way to get data from a lot of people. Followups by phone or email allow some deeper discussion. A survey might be based on what we learn in customer interviews.
  • Card sorting. This is a great way to find out if an existing or proposed information architecture matches the way real users think about the data.

Team members observing

I always want client team members to participate or observe. They may be in the next room watching a video monitor, or observing via GoToMeeting, or going out to visit customers with me. I ask them to take notes and we have debriefing sessions to share our observations.

They learn a lot, too. Here are some examples of what team members have said:

“I never believed it would be so hard. I never thought people would have used it this way.”

“What we saw him do wasn’t what we expected.”

Observation leads to product improvement because the more observers there are, the harder it is to ignore problems that turn up.

Things we’ve learned

In all cases, the goal in customer research is to find out what people think and how they work. Research results lead to design changes in the short term, and to better UX strategy in the longer term.

We use data from customer research to build and refine our personas, too.

These are some of the things I’ve learned by listening to customers:

  • Web tools for the construction industry. We stopped development on a new feature because the target audience didn’t want it. This saved a lot of development time.
  • Dictation tool for physicians. “Physicians don’t do that.” A doctor made it clear that office staffers are the ones to enter demographic information, so we changed the workflow.
  • Business reporting site. Customer visits turned up a need for business owners to delegate certain tasks to employees. They wouldn’t have been able to use the tool if we hadn’t learned about this.
  • Consumer software. Even though customer surveys showed great satisfaction, when I ran this client’s first usability study, it turned out that no one could actually use an important part of it.
  • Online magazines, online courses & business sites. People have told us over the years that they’re a bit shy about commenting on what someone else has written online.
  • Sales productivity tool. Observers saw problems they had not seen in the lab. They started a fix right away.

Is it time for you to start doing customer research?

Have you talked with your customers recently? Let’s talk about ways to improve your products through customer research.