Asking (very) personal questions in an application process

20 Nov 2015

Personal questions to create a Social Security account

If you create a my Social Security account online, the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses their “identity services provider” (the credit bureau Experian) to get information about you. You have to answer them to prove that you are you. Here’s a sample:

Text: You may have opened a student loan in or around February 1999. Please select the lender that you have previously or you are currently making payments to. If you have not received student loans with any of these lenders now or in the past, please select NONE OF THE ABOVE/DOES NOT APPLY. [Followed by radio buttons with choices]

Example questions in the my Social Security application (taken from a SSA online video)

If you can answer enough of them correctly, you create the account. If not, you have to wait 24 hours and try again. (That gives you time to look up old phone numbers and financial information.)

Personal questions in a usability study

In a recent usability study, participants entered a home address as part of an application process. The site then displayed a list of people who live there and cars that are registered to them. Some people thought it was an invasion of privacy or creepy. Others liked the convenience.

The range of reactions didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me is that no one was upset enough to want to leave the site, although some people wanted to know where the information came from.

Another surprise: Seeing that the website could look up some data seemed to change expectations. A few participants assumed that default values elsewhere in the form were not just suggestions, but other data that the site found about them. That seemed to make them more likely to accept the default values. (This needs more investigation, but it was an interesting observation.)

What do you think?

Have you seen personal questions like these in other situations? Have you created an account at SSA? Was it surprising to see what they could find out about you?


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.

How hard can it be to use a mouse, anyway?

4 Nov 2010

How hard can it be to use a mouse, anyway? Harder than you think!

Pop-up context menu

An example of a pop-up context menu

Do you use the right mouse button? When you click it, you get a pop-up context menu with commands related to what the mouse pointer was on. It’s helpful if you know about it and can make you more efficient. (It’s sometimes called the secondary mouse button, or MB2.)

More important than whether you know  how to use it, do you know if your customers know about it? I’ve always thought it was a fairly advanced interaction technique, something that average computer users don’t know about.

Some observations from usability studies:

  • I saw people clicking the right-mouse button in a study this year. They must have learned about it at some point or they probably wouldn’t have tried it. But they were clearly lost and using it as a last resort.
  • In an earlier study, some important features were only available through the pop-up context menu. People who didn’t know about it could never find those important commands and were unable to get their tasks done.

That doesn’t mean you should never use the right-mouse button when you design an application. Many people do know about it and depend on it for efficiency. But don’t assume that people will use it. Anything available on that context menu must be available (and obvious) somewhere else.

“Even my grandmother could do this”

13 Oct 2010

Usability studies are great for finding problems in a product under development. But we don’t only learn about bad things. Sometimes we hear positive comments and compliments.

Here are some quotes from previous studies showing how a product met users’ expectations or pleased them in some way.

  • “It’s answering my questions as I think of them.”
  • “I got a level of comfort that it knows what to do.”
  • “Kind of cool. I like this!”
  • “That was great!”
  • “This answers my question… I have options if I choose to go this route.”
  • “That’s a nice feature and it’s really easy to use. It’s really fast”
  • “He likes the summary screen: ‘Nicely laid out’ “
  • “Even my grandmother could do this”
  • “It’s nice to have a personality to differentiate you from others and helps to build a relationship — this is a long term relationship with your customer.”

It’s nice to get compliments like this. What positive things have you heard in usability studies? Do your colleagues (or clients) appreciate the positive remarks, or are they just interested in looking for problems to fix?