Doing your user research

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Show we are joined by Leisa Reichelt to discuss what is involved in user research.

Skip to the discussion or this week’s links.

This episode of the Boagworld show is sponsored by Media Temple and Headscape. Please support the show by checking them out.

Paul: Hello and welcome to the podcast for all those involved in designing, developing and running websites on a daily basis. My name is Paul. Joining me as always is Marcus. Hello Marcus.

Marcus: Hello Paul, how are you?

Paul: I’m very well, well no I’m not very well. Why did I say that? That such a British thing to say isn’t it. Oh yes, stiff upper lip.

Marcus: I’ve got two broken legs but other than that I’m fine.

Paul: Yes.

Marcus: As you can probably hear, I am not fine.

Paul: You’re sounding very nasally, which I am not so you win on that regards because if you sound bad, there is nothing worse than being ill if you don’t look it or sound it.

Marcus: Yes, because no one believes you. I got a sore throat on Sunday evening and then I went all nasally yesterday and really wasn’t feeling great at all. But I feel all right today, just sound funny.

Paul: Well, you’ve always sounded funny to me Marcus. So I am here by announcing that this is the worst episode in terms of having to record it that we’ve ever done. Was not only both of us are ill, which is quite unusual for us both to be ill at the same time, the farce of making this show happen is beyond belief.

Marcus: Why? Do tell, Paul.

Paul: Leisa Reichelt is on this week’s show.

Marcus: But she’s not here at the moment.

Paul: No she’s not because we arranged an interview with her. So Leisa Reichelt is the user research and for years and years and years she’s worked at the Government Digital Service here in the UK, doing some incredible work, really, really good stuff. And so I thought, we going to talk about user research, how can we not get her on the show?

She’s moved back to Australia, which is where she comes from, to work with their equivalent so she’s doing government stuff over there. Which was fine, except I didn’t really think it through when I invited her to be on the show.

Marcus: Yes isn’t it 11 or 12 hours difference?

Paul: Indeed. So I had to get up and do an interview at 7:30 AM in the morning.

Marcus: Oh bless.

Paul: Which in itself is bad. But when you then records the whole show or a whole interview and it failed to record at her end and failed to record at my end. And then you have to get up at 7:30 AM the next day to do it all again.

Marcus: And it all feels totally rehearsed I guess?

Paul: Yes, except that what we decided to do, I said to her let’s not pretend that we haven’t already done this once. So the conversation went off in a bit of a different angle and it was good. But it was just not funny.

Marcus: You needed an audio professional Paul didn’t you?

Paul: I did need an audio professional but where do I find one? I don’t know of one.

Marcus: You probably know the odd one here and there.

Paul: Well I didn’t want to make you get up at 7:30 AM. But what’s the chances of neither end recording?

Marcus: A very slim. But it wouldn’t have made any difference if you had one end, so if you lose one you may as well lose them both.

Paul: What I meant is, my end recorded my voice but didn’t record her voice. And her end didn’t record her voice.

Marcus: I am recording you because I am using two sets of recording things, but yes, use Piezo Paul.

Paul: But that’s what I am using.

Marcus: Oh well that should record both.

Paul: It depends how you got it set up. I’d accidentally left it on what I normally podcast on, which is me just recording my voice.

Marcus: Well I record me into Logic and both of us into Piezo.

Paul: Piezo’s a very good little app isn’t it, I really like it.

Marcus: Yes I had to use the backup last week because Adams recording for some reason was incredibly noisy, so it’s handy to have a backup.

Paul: A very sensible of you, always backup. Which is what Ian said to me when I recently managed to screw up the database on my website.

Marcus: Yes, I believe those were the words.

Paul: Well I thought he was backing it up, and he thought I was backing it up. But Media Temple sorted us out. That’s almost very good segue into our sponsor, isn’t it?

Marcus: Hopefully if they are the sponsor, then yes.

Paul: No it’s actually their competition. Who competes with Media Temple? There’s hundreds of hosting companies but I couldn’t name another one. I only know Media Temple. I’ve been indoctrinated that badly by them.

Marcus: We use Memset in the UK.

Paul: Don’t mention, I’m about to go into a sponsor slot for Media Temple.

Marcus: You said I can’t think of any. Where you lying Paul?

Paul: No I wasn’t but it doesn’t mean that you have to think of some, do you?

Marcus: Oops.

Paul: Anyway, let’s talk about Media Temple. Whoever the other one Marcus just mentioned is, you don’t want them, they’re shit in comparison to Media Temple. Because Media Temple are awesome, I joke about them but they’ve got such a good setup, they’ve got such good support but they’ve also got a really good shared hosting platform called The Grid which is this really good arrangement for the less technical amongst us. It’s got a unique cluster architecture (I don’t know what that means).

Marcus: Yes, it’s big hosting words.

Paul: All I know is that it’s lightning fast and easily scalable and not just because I read that from their website, but I can attest to this. So it’s great for hosting your own site but also you can host your client’s websites on it too. They throw in Google apps so if you are like me, you use Google apps as does everybody at Headscape, you get that as part of the deal. And they offer a global CDN. Now I know what the CDN is. It’s a content distributation network.

Marcus: Distributation?

Paul: Yes. It’s a new word. My brain shut down.

Marcus: I know what a CDN is as well. If I know what it is…

Paul: Then anyone must. I like my CDN. I like it except the when I’m trying to make updates to the site and I don’t understand why I am not seeing the updates and it’s because it’s been distributed on the CDN and I am not seeing them. So always remember to turn your CDN into development mode when you release a new update to your site.

So anyway, this is all nicely managed for you, there is no hassle hosting your client sites which is the first thing you need to get rid of if you run a web design agency, you get rid of the hassle of hosting because hosting is a pain in the arse isn’t it?

Marcus: Yes. We don’t do it any more, we might still have one or two, not sure but basically if you’re an agency of 500 people I’m sure you’re going to have a nice hosting division and look after people 24/7 but if your small agency like Headscape then no. It doesn’t work. We work effectively nine till five Monday to Friday and websites have habit of going down on a Saturday night and they need to be dealt with, so what we tend to do is recommend hosting packages to our clients and then they buy them directly, which works nicely.

Paul: So you can host 10 sites on a grid account for $30 per month but you can extend that number at all to basically anything you want. So it’s great if you are a small agency or a freelancer or whatever else that has to manage client sites, just shove them on Media Temple, it’s so straightforward. Their support is so good, it’s like on Friday evening, last Friday evening I had problems with my databases as I was saying just a minute ago. Boagworld went down as a result. We think it’s a plug in, we haven’t quite got to the bottom of it, and normally Ian sorts these things out for me but Friday evening, not a hope. He’s gone, good for him really. He doesn’t check his work emails over the weekend and I totally respect that, even though I wanted to punch him in the face at that particular moment.

Marcus: I’d like to see you try.

Paul: Err no. He would crush me. He would crush me like a bug.

Marcus: And I’m not giving you his phone number.

Paul: No don’t. Just don’t. But actually I didn’t need his help. All I needed to do was login to Media Temple and I started a live chat with them and they got me fixed in two minutes. So I didn’t really need to disturb Ian at all. That is flipping brilliant.

Marcus: That underlines what I was saying earlier about why a client should have a direct relationship. Because if they bought hosting through us or we had the relationship with the hosting company, they wouldn’t be able to do what you did. That’s why it’s good for everyone. Everyone wins.

Paul: Because I am effectively a client of Headscape now. I pay you money and everything.

Marcus: We pay you money as well though Paul.

Paul: Yes I know, but you pay me a lot more than I paid you to be fair.

[Marcus sniffs loudly]

Marcus: Excuse me. Mr Sniff.

Paul: That’s all right, just as long as it’s not one of those really guttural, from your chest sniffs.

Marcus: I haven’t got to that stage yet, that’s normally towards the end of the cold isn’t it?

Paul: My wife is terrible for that.

Marcus: Really? I bet she’s loving you for this.

Paul: She is deeply asthmatic with little shrivelled up lungs and so whenever she gets a cold, she immediately gets a just infection and phlems up all kinds of disgusting stuff. She’s repulsive.

Hey here’s a random fact, the Pope only has one lung, I learnt that in QI.

Marcus: Is there a new series of QI out then?

Paul: No I think I found it, where did I find it?

Marcus: Which Pope is it then, I wonder.

Paul: It is this Pope. Trendy Pope. The cool, hip Pope. The one that Americans waive babies at.

So I do need to say one more thing about Media Temple which is that you’ve got a special discount as a Boagworld listener, this is the bit worth knowing. You can use promo code BOAG for 25% off the web hosting. Go to Boagworld/MediaTemple and enter the promo code upon signup.

Marcus: I notice in your note Paul that we are supposed to chat about where we would like to live in the world. We didn’t do that.

Paul: Yes, it’s because we segued nicely into Media Temple.

Marcus: Well I am segueing back again.

Paul: It was just talking about the way that Leisa moved to Australia.

Marcus: Well that’s where she comes from isn’t it?

Paul: Yes. There was a bit of me that would love to live in Australia.

Marcus: I’ve never been, have you been?

Paul: No I haven’t, but it just looks amazing. And everyone who goes to Australia just raves about it, and it’s really annoying.

Marcus: It’s supposed to have cool laid back lifestyle, which is quite appealing I have to say. Being warm, is quite appealing.

Paul: But they’ve got a lot of things that will try to kill you.

Marcus: Yes, lots of nasty bugs.

Paul: So that’s not so good. So where would you live Marcus?

Marcus: Where I live now.

Paul: Oh you are so dull.

Marcus: No, I would. The south of England.

Paul: Wouldn’t you want to live on some Caribbean island with your feet up, drinking margaritas or something?

Marcus: Yes that sounds good, but it sounds more like a holiday. I’d like to have a house on a Caribbean island I could go and visit.

Paul: That would be nice. It’s a difficult one isn’t it? Anywhere turns boring and mundane when you are there for any long time. That’s why I like my RV. Keep on trucking, or something.

Marcus: Yes I get the idea of those things but I am a bit of a stay at home really.

Paul: You are. I don’t know why you segued back into this conversation because when it comes to travelling you are the dullest person I know, Marcus.

Marcus: I’ve been everywhere though, I’ve done loads travelling.

Paul: But it’s like, I don’t want to go anywhere as I just want to be home with my friends.

Marcus: It’s not that I don’t want to go anywhere, I just don’t want to go anywhere for very long.

Paul: Yes that’s true.

Marcus: I went to Vietnam and Cambodia for three weeks last year.

Paul: I wonder whether you would be like you are if you hadn’t done all that travelling as a teenager. I wonder if that made you sick of it.

Marcus: Yes I think it did a bit. It was tedious. One hotel to another and I remember getting up more than once out of bed, trying to find the toilet and walking into a wall because I thought I was in the room I was in the night before. And it does start to get you after a while so yes you are probably right.

Paul: See, you’ve aged before your time really.

Marcus: I actually think I have but I don’t mind.

Paul: There was an app on the App Store— this is so dull, we so need to move on but just let me tell you this— there was an app on the App Store which was a hearing app to test your hearing. I’ve got the hearing of a 50-year-old.

Marcus: I suspect I have got worse than that.

Paul: I don’t know, you maybe.

Marcus: Usually you lose the top end, and it was probably measuring how far down the scale you go. I subjected my hearing to very loud music for many, many years and it still seems to be all right, but you don’t know do you, it might be getting gradually worse and worse.

Paul: And then you die.

Marcus: And then you die, yes.

Paul: So I think on that we may as well go to the interview. See if I managed to pretend to be more wake at 7:30 AM in the morning. So this is the interview—you can tell we’re both ill— this is the interview with Leisa Reichelt. Leisa, I am sorry you been sandwiched in such a shit show, but it’s a really good interview, loads of great stuff about user research, so check it out.

Discussion about the importance of user research with Leisa Reichelt

Paul: So here we go again Leisa, good to have you are back.

Leisa: Second time’s the charm Paul, we going to do this one for sure.

Paul: Yes, we’re recording in every possible way so I suppose if people are listening to this, it’s worked, which is a miracle.

Leisa: Thank goodness for that. I don’t know if I could do this again.

Paul: So yes, let’s introduce people to you if they haven’t met you before or heard of you before. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your background and who you are and what you do?

Leisa: Sure, my name is Leisa Reichelt. I am currently the Head of Service Design at the Australian Digital Transformation Office, which is an agency in the Australian government that is tasked with making all government services clearer, simpler, faster and easier for people to get access to without having to understand how government works. Which may sound familiar, particularly if you are in the UK or the US with there were similar organisations, GDS and USDS who do very similar things. Prior to being here I was in fact at GDS as Head of User Research. But I’m originally from Australia so I’ve come home just in the last month and now I am based in Sydney.

Paul: Is it good to be home?

Leisa: It is lovely, the weather is just divine.

Paul: Oh shut up.

Leisa: I wait by the beach to get my bus in the morning, it’s coming into the summer, it’s great.

Paul: I just tell myself everything in Australia is trying to kill you. Any nature in Australia is out to kill you, isn’t it? Spiders and snakes and things like that? You must be constantly in fear of your life.

Leisa: I grew up with it though so I’m a bit more used to it. We had a meeting out at the botanical Gardens in Canberra the other week and we came out and were waiting for a cab to take us to where we had to go next and a kangaroo literally hopped straight past. And a couple of guys who I was with were not from Australia and festival they were like oh my God this is so cool, and then they were like, shall be run?

Paul: Oh dear, as someone just settling in for the British winter I have to come up with some excuse, some justification that life wouldn’t be better if I just moved to Australia.

Leisa: The broadband is shit.

Paul: Oh there you go then. That’s a make or break for me.

Leisa: We have to go out and go to the beach instead, it’s cool.

Paul: You actually go outside and have a healthy rounded life?

Leisa: I know right, you look forward to going outside when you live here, it’s brilliant.

Paul: So, let’s talk about user experience stuff rather than the weather, how British of me talking about the weather. So the reason we got you on this week’s show is because we are talking about user research this week, which is obviously what your background is, what your specialty is. But it’s one of the lesser-known disciplines, that’s changing now but it was very much a lesser-known discipline. We talked about usability testing but that’s about as far as we thought. So can you give me the elevator pitch of what user research is in a nutshell?

Leisa: I can definitely do that. So you might be familiar with this stick that a lot of organisations have which is around the fact that they are going to become world dominating because they’re going to make things more user-friendly and be more focused on the users and all that kind of thing. And then when you go and work with them you discover that usually involves sitting in a boardroom, role-playing what a user might be like with no actual real experience of that at all. Which to be fair, in some organisations when you are designing for someone who is exactly like you, that is probably user research but for most of the rest of us, user research involves actually going out and meeting an understanding and observing the actual real pupil who would potentially be users of the thing you are making, and getting a really good understanding of what it is about them that is going to provide the challenges and opportunities for you in your design process.

Paul: The thing about sitting in boardrooms, role-playing and saying yes we know what users want, it rings so many bells with me it’s unbelievable.

Leisa: It’s everywhere, this is the thing, the kind of work that user researchers do is very, very old. It’s been a thing for the best part of the last century may be longer than that but this notion of user centeredness has been something that everybody has talked about a lot but the reality is most organisations do practically none of that, or maybe the usability bit at the end as a form of testing. Despite all the rhetoric of customer user centeredness it’s really astonishing the number and type of organisations who do little to none. It’s also astonishing how once you start doing it you start thinking how did I ever think I could ever do without this?

Paul: I guess that the argument that you hear is that, I work with our users every day, I speak to them every day so therefore I’ve got a good understanding of them. When you feel that falls down?

Leisa: Well I think if you are actually on the front line and working with and talking to users every day you might be one of the few people in the organisation who can and actually do a decent job in a role-play. Again in most instances, those are not the people they get to be in the boardroom when the role-play is happening. They are on the phones and manning the desks, so in ways not really a real question unless you’re actually inviting those people into the office, into the workshops.

People who are in call centres often have a really good understanding of what problems people are having and what the organisation can do to solve those problems better. It’s also really worth understanding that you only ever get the understanding of users based on the lens that you are putting over the top of them. If you’re only looking to understand them through the lens of your organisation or your product, you’ll only see a tiny fragment of what their entire experience is because very rarely is it all about you. I working government and government are masters of this because the research that does happen tends to happen in a directorate of a department and a project group within that directorate and it’s looking at a very, very specific thing. So you’ve got these little tiny nuggets of insight about people that are being gathered, like right along the bottom of this enormously long wide alter, and never actually through the lens of the actual human experience.

We did a piece of work in the UK government looking at the experience of travelling to the UK and we thought that people been travelling to the UK for very long time, surely if we go back and look at all the research has ever been done by the government about this we should be at put together a picture of what it’s like. So we tried to do that and we really ended up with a mosaic view, knew a lot about little tiny bits, we really didn’t know anything about the proper context of the experience that people were having. So we spent a bunch of time doing that and then we’ve spent a small amount of time actually going out and observing and talking to people who are having that experience. We got so much more just from that small amount of qualitative work that was really following in the user’s footsteps, following through what they were doing and looking at it through the lens of the border force people who were doing that bit all those special smart gates, people who are doing that or the visas. You can’t just put all the bits together and go now we understand the experience because we don’t.

Paul: Also it’s about the gaps in those experiences as well, isn’t it. The transition points where people move from one department to another, and that’s often where they fall through gaps in my experience as well.

Leisa: That’s the worst bit nobody knows about it because nobody is looking for it.

Paul: How is user research different from market research because there’s a lot of marketers that are listening to this that might be sitting there going, well we’ve been looking into our users and researching into them for donkeys years, why have recently got this new term user research?

Leisa: I think people who are doing user research are very interested in the full, rich experience that individual people are having and market researchers tend to be much more interested in an aggregated view of that, so they are interested in the behaviours of complete markets, large markets. There are subsets of behaviours as well, when we think about what marketing is it’s really about how can I get a message that’s going to hit home to people. So you need to know what speaks to them and what do they listen to, how can you get there attention?

So market research is very useful I am told at helping to answer those kind of questions, but those kinds of techniques don’t really give you much insight into how you should design a project or service. In market research you get a lot of what’s, what people read, how many of them are there? You get a lot of data. And you tend to get less insight into why people are doing the things they are doing. User researchers are very interested in why, so often a loop will happen where we will be interested in something on the back of seeing some data. So you will see something in analytics and you’ll go, what’s happening there? Why all of a sudden after investing 30 minutes in a form do 5% of people quit? What’s going on there? Analytics probably not going to be able to tell you that because you don’t know what questions to ask, or your questions often biased by stuff that’s framing that comes from your organisation. Whereas you can do a small amount of user research and really quickly get down to the bottom of the case, this is why people are doing that crazy thing, that thing that doesn’t make any sense. And then you go back and say here are some ways that might fix it and then you go back out to more quantitative methods to determine whether or not your design has been effective or not.

So they are just different sets of tools that help view different things. Market research doesn’t tend to help you know how to know what to design and how to design it. Particularly when you are looking at big sized problems. I steal this analogy from a blog post that Ben Holiday wrote about a book that I can never remember what it’s called about colouring and trucks. If you’re crossing the road this all kinds of data that you could look at, you could look at what colour the eyes of the people who are crossing the road coming toward you are which could be very interesting potentially or you can look at the size and speed of the large objects that are hurtling down the road towards you as you cross. The types of methods that you would use to detect and analyse those kinds of things would be really different. In a lot of organisations, especially in government we’ve got truck -sized problems. We don’t really need very fine detailed measurements to be able to help us identify and understand what the problems are so small-scale research is very good at helping you work out what’s most important and how you might go about fixing it.

Once you get a service is working pretty well, I’d say 90% of people are doing well in interacting with your services, but to want to get every percentage after that is much more difficult. Then you need to look to more optimisation tools so you look into analytics, multi-variants testing all those kinds of things, getting behavioural economists involved. They can help you get that last 10% but most of us are still in the first 90%. We haven’t quite earned the right to be using the optimisation tools yet because we’re still solving basic problems.

Paul: I tell you one challenge I come across with user research is that one part of my job is to help organisations put together in-house digital teams. As part of that you are suggesting front-end coders and server side developers and user interface designers and all these kind of things and increasingly I am including in the mix a user researcher. At least one for a small in-house team. Without fail that seems to be the one that gets challenged because I think people really struggled to picture what that person actually does on a day-to-day basis. How many usability test sessions can you run? How many times can you look at the user, once we know the user surely we know the user? The job is done. So can you talk as a little bit through what a user researcher dance on a daily basis, how do they have a full-time job within a team?

Leisa: I certainly can. A user researcher does what you would expect them to do which is plan research, they help work out what we’re going to do and who were going to do with, so all the preparation work that needs to be done with that. Then we execute the research, go out in the field or into the lab and do it and we analyse the research and work out what it means and then we come back with some findings. A good user researcher is also bringing their team along to experience that process as well and are not doing by themselves. Based on my experience that takes up probably about 30 to 35% of the time that a user researcher is spending in an average week. The rest of the time they spend doing the really important part which is about making sure that the team they are working with really understands what they’ve learned in research, and really understands what that means for the service that you’re working on, what we should be working on right now and what needs fixing and actually acts on it, actually does something with it and doesn’t go, oh we’ve done the research, ticked that box, let’s move on and go and do what we were going to do anyway. There’s a huge amount of inertia that teams have, they get fixated on what they think, and we’ve worked out what we’re going to do, we going to do this. And you go out and do your research and you go, actually no that’s not really the right thing to do. We need to do something a bit different.

But everyone is psychically emotionally attached to the idea of the thing that we’d already agreed we were going to do. And it can be really, really difficult to get teams to acknowledge and act on the fact that we all know now that that’s not right and we need to do something different. That takes a lot of time, takes a lot of being present and being in the same space as teams, listening to what they are doing and what they are saying and inserting yourself into meetings that people have and it hasn’t occurred to them that you might be useful in that meeting. Thinking about that and how you can keep communicating this, making videos, making posters and just making ways that the research can be really present and actionable and always become available and in people’s faces. Ambient and not stuck in a dry thoroughfare being forgotten about. That takes a lot of time. If you don’t allow time for that, then you’ll spend a lot of time doing research and do nothing about it. It’s a complete waste you is will not do it at all.

Paul: And also I guess you are communicating potentially not just with the development team that are developing the service but across the entire organisation, helping everyone understand the user better in their interaction with them. That’s getting even bigger than when you start talking about that, it really is a big job.

Leisa: You have to understand the user needs of all the different people that you’re working with. We work a lot in Agile here, it’s reasonably easy once you get into the swing of it and the team gets used to having a researcher around, it’s reasonably easy to communicate to them really quickly what needs doing. A lot of the time they’re watching and they’ve already fixed it for you before you have told them what the problem was. Some in the scheme of things that’s relatively easy but when you go up a level from that and you get into things like policy issues where it’s not just the way that the forms designed, it’s actually the policy that’s behind the reason that the form is designed that way that needs changing.

See you are then dealing the whole of the group of people with whole of the group of motivations, with no sense of why you would or should have an opinion about this and why they would or should listen to you about it. They aren’t used to using this kind of evidence and the way that you present what you know, persuasively is completely different. So you have to think about that and you have to make different arguments to persuade those people. And then you are right, quite often what you find in one part of the organisation is really relevant to another part of the organisation that doesn’t even know that you exist. So there are huge opportunities there, connecting things up that previously weren’t connected. There was really no end to the value that you can add to the organisation if you take it on yourself to focus on getting the most out of the research and making sure it’s really widely communicated in a way that is actionable for the people that you’re communicating it to. That’s hard work, it’s a very creative thing to do.

Paul: You are effectively the users representative within the organisation. You are the user’s champion. Everybody else has different responsibilities, the designer says they are the user champion but really they are designing user interfaces that are deliverables. There are a lot of people that put a claim on being a user champion but not dedicated to it, and that seems to be the difference with you.

Leisa: I think that the difference is, yes to appoint but if you’re going to be really, really good at this then your objectives shouldn’t be to be the expert, it should be to be the expert in making your team the expert. So successes when your team is full of people who really understand the users and who will be really advocating for them all the time. That’s when you’ve really done your job well.

Paul: So what kind of techniques are you using to make this happen? There’s two sides to that question aren’t there, there’s the research side, what kind of techniques are you using in the research and then also what kind of techniques are you using in communicating and embedding that user centric thinking within your team?

Leisa: I think for both sides of these are potentially really creative processes. There are lots of different ways that you can tackle research based on the kind of specific constraints and challenges of the audience and the project and what you’re working on. The bread-and-butter of it is just one-to-one sessions with people who are representative or who could be members of the audience that you are designing for. You might do that as an interview or you might do it as a journey mapping session, you might do it as a usability test, you might do it as a combination of those two things, there is a range of different things you could do. But mostly it’s about getting in a room with one other person, ideally their room that they would do the thing in and spending usually around about an hour with them and allowing them to basically take you on a tour of their experience of whatever it is that you are investigating. That’s kind of it.

Paul: So is that preferable then to, you favour that approach over things like surveys and analytics kind of thing?

Leisa: If I’m trying to understand what I should be designing and how I should be designing it then yes, absolutely. That’s not to say if you have to make a high-stakes recommendation, you might do a round of qualitative research which gives you an understanding of what you think the answer might be and then you can back that up with a larger scale survey for example to validate at a more significant, to give a higher confidence level IV people and yourself who are making the decisions. You would always want to do the qualitative first so that you actually know what to ask people in the survey.

Paul: Because that’s been the big one in my experience when it comes to convincing people, that they will go, well you only spoke to a handful of people or however many you spoke to—it doesn’t really matter, it’s never enough—oh, you’ve only spoken to a small number of people, that’s not accurate enough. I get this a lot especially when I am working in higher education institutions that are used to academic research where you have a large pool of people that you’re researching into. How do you deal with those kinds of issues?

Leisa: I really think that the only way to answer that successfully is to say, you come with me. You come with me and sit in and observe the first six or eight sessions, then after that you tell me if you think we need to see more people. And almost invariably after about the fourth or fifth session they will go, I really think I don’t need to go and see any more, I got to go do some work. And they stop telling you that you need to do 12 of 15 or 20 or 40 or 60 or however many it is. And once people have had that experience they stop asking that, they stop asking for crazy sample sizes for this kind of research. But you can get into a statistical or mathematical debate with them, you will probably lose. So my best way to respond to that is to say, you come with me and at the end if you are still not sure what you think we should do then we’ll do some more.

And that’s good practice, that’s what you should do, right? You get to the end of 6 to 8 sessions and you’re still not sure what to do, you probably should do some more. And sometimes that happens but from most of us most of the time in the first 4 or 5 sessions you are just like, oh God please can we start fixing stuff.

Paul: Because in some ways you’re better off once you hit something obvious like that, you are better off fixing it and going back and doing some more afterwards to see whether you’ve successfully fixed it and whether that has unearthed more issues really, aren’t you? Rather than just banging on the same issue again and again?

Leisa: I think that’s the thing about researchers, once you’ve done it, everything that you learnt just appears to be completely obvious. But having not done it he wouldn’t be able to say the things that you can say after you’ve done research, if you know to mean. That’s often a sign of good research which is why presenting research at the end of the study can be really scary thing to do because you get to the end and you think I got a desk of completely obvious stuff. And it really feels like that, but before you done it nobody was making that list.

Paul: One of the things that I didn’t ask when we did this the first time round, which I think is quite an important question, is around – I’m very conscious that a lot of people have listened to this, what we’ve discussed here and they’ve come to the conclusion that yes, this is something that is definitely worth doing within their organisation, it’s something that they need to make happen but there isn’t a position available for this at the moment, is not being advertised. They could take on some of these responsibilities but as is becoming blatantly obvious this is a big job. How do they convince the powers that be of the value of doing this kind of work?

Leisa: I don’t know. I think I’m going to defer to Jared Spool’s position on this and say I don’t know if you can.

Paul: Yes we had Jared on the show a few weeks back and talked about that exact article that you are referring to now. It’s a really difficult one isn’t it? My feeling is you’ve almost got to do it a little bit under the radar and prove the results of it.

Leisa: Yes, although it’s really difficult. We talked about before about how it really is a full-time job to do user research, to do a really good job at presenting it back so that it’s compelling. How you do that on to for your everyday job is killing. Maybe if you haven’t got kids you could do it. The thing is your appearing to people’s real empathy towards end users and a lot of people working organisations where there is a little lip service paid to that but at the end of the day people really don’t care. They just want to punch stuff out the door and see if it works and hit their KPIs, it’s got really nothing to do with how uses a feeling. I think in a lot of cases to make proper real systemic change you need somebody at the top who actually really cares about it.

Paul: Is very difficult isn’t it, it’s a very challenging situation. A big part of my job is helping people with these kinds of strategies and directions. I’m in the position where I am proposing teams of people and trying to get them to realise the value of these different people. Like I said user research is always a quite challenging one to get people to think about.

What is interesting about this is that because you some research is an emerging role, you don’t as of yet go to university and go, I’m going to become a user research when I grow up. So how do people get into this? What kind of people make good use of researchers and what kind of backgrounds to they come from?

Leisa: You get them from two different directions. You get people who got an interest in people who do things like psychology and apology degrees and that kind of thing who then discover the application of it in the tech field and go, oh this is fun and interesting – I’m going to do that. And then you get the other way where you have people who are developers sometimes, designers sometimes, writers, people like that who are already in the digital field and see that this is a thing and get excited about how doing this kind of work can help them deliver better results, and get into it that way. So there’s lots of different ways to get into it, you don’t need a qualification to be up to do this. Is one of those things, I kind of think of it like being a bit of a trade where there was some basic stuff that you need to know but really you get good at this because you apprentice yourself to people who are good at it and you copy them and you just do it for a long time, that’s how you get good at it.

For me you need to be interested in people, you need to be able to strike up a conversation, or a bit of rapport with people who are nothing at all like you, and who have very different backgrounds to you. You need to be able to listen which is a surprisingly difficult skill for some people.

Paul: I can attest to that. As I said to the last time we did this interview, when I was at Headscape, Marcus and Chris used to ban me from doing any kind of usability testing or anything like that simply because I just want to shout people and say why aren’t you doing it right? Which is probably not the right approach, I am guessing.

Leisa: The other thing that I think is really important which is something that people don’t necessarily think about is the analysis capabilities. The capability to look at a lot of really messy fuzzy data and turn it into something that is properly evidenced and can be traced back to individual people. But then can be turned into something actionable that teams can do something with it. That’s a special skill and I think Genevieve Bell at Intel says that you are either born with that you are not. You can’t really teach that. When I first read that she said that, I am like really? But since then I’ve been on the lookout I think she’s right. I think you’ve either got it we haven’t.

Paul: It’s really interesting that another thing that I do is that I do mentorship with other agencies and other web designers and one of the people that I was working with yesterday had just done a whole load of research and came back to me and said, what do I do with all of this now? He just felt completely overwhelmed by this mass of information in front of him. So yes, it can be quite intimidating can’t it?

Leisa: I think people who have even done it for a long time have that moment at the beginning of the analysis where they just go, how will I ever make sense of this? I’m sitting in a room at the moment which is just like a world of post-it notes and that’s just a result of the week out in the field. It’s amazing watching it transform over the course of a couple of days from being a complete chaotic mess into some really clear insights about what we know what we need to do about it.

Paul: The whole topic I find completely fascinating because although it seems to be something that a lot of organisations pay lip service to, very few actually seem to invest into getting people in. And yet of all of the different roles that you could have, this is one that creates tangible and real return on your investment. One that you can measure in a very specific way, so it amazes me that more people aren’t investing in it within organisations. Just blows my mind.

Leisa: I think once you do it and you do it properly it’s hard to go back again but there are plenty of organisations where they’ve done a half arsed job at it, where they’ve tried it didn’t work, it’s no good. And this is part of what happens if you spread researchers too thinly, and just have them tasked to do usability tests across six different projects. You’re never going to get excited about this kind of work if that’s the way that you’re working because you never really going to get that kind of deep, empathic relationship with your users across the entire team. It would just be like a tick box thing, we’ve done that part, we’ve done the usability testing and those five annoying bugs we need to fix, let’s move on.

Paul: That was a point you made a lot in the first time we recorded this, and I think it’s a really important one because I think a lot of organisations do treated as a tick box exercise and do a half arsed job at it. They spread their user research is too thinly. One of the questions I asked first time round and which we haven’t touched on as much this time was the issue of is this something that you can do part-time? Is this something you can just spend a little bit of time on? And there is value in that but it is almost you either do it or you don’t. Is that a fair assessment?

Leisa: Yes at GDS we got to the benchmark saying you can’t if you can’t be in with the team three days a week you pretty much might as well not bother.

Paul: Right.

Leisa: You’ve got to be all in. I think this is one of the problems that people think about research as a nice to have. We will spend all the money on that, and oh look, there’s no money left so we can’t do research. And it shouldn’t be like that at all. When you look at how digital service standards for example that we using government, the number one criteria is doing research to understand user needs because we know that’s the foundation upon which we make all of the decisions about what to do and how to do it in bottles to do it in. Everybody’s got a pot of time, every projects got a pot of money, and everybody at some point decides how to divide that up. If you don’t do user research you are actively deciding not to do it, it’s not that you’re running out of money and that’s a shame. You cut the pie however you want to.

Paul: I like that, unlike that way of wording it. You are actively deciding not do user research, to not care about your users. We need to end with that one. That’s a better ending than the last time. Of course last time we did solve every user experience problem ever known to man, but nobody is ever going to hit that which is sad.

Leisa: Such a shame. Oh well, maybe another time.

Paul: Time we will record that bit. Leisa thank you so much for doing this again because it’s such an important subject and I’ve really enjoyed talking about it and it’s helped clarify some thinking in my mind about the recommendations I make to my client that the digital teams they put together and I’m certainly now less apologetic for trying to crowbar a user researcher into the mix of digital teams that I create. Because it’s an absolutely vital role. I totally agree with you.

Leisa: Well my work here is done, thank you.

Paul: You have succeeded. Thank you very much.


Paul: I know you haven’t had a chance to listen to this Marcus.

Marcus: No and I would actually like to hear this, so I may even give it a listen when I edit it.

Paul: You really ought to because it’s really interesting. As I say in the interview, I’ve been recommending that internal digital teams have a user researcher in them. You know when we do these digital strategies and stuff, you know that I’ve been recommending it because you’ve been proofreading some of the documents, and I’ve always felt it’s a position I have to explain and justify. I got to the point of going is this a bit over the top having a full-time researcher? But if you listen to Leisa she just blows that apart. It’s such an important role and it’s so underestimated. Even within agencies, I think having a professional user researcher is a really useful thing to have.

Marcus: Do you think it’s a role that can straddle other roles?

Paul: Yes and no. Yes I think for example in Headscape, you’ve got you who does a lot of that kind of role and Chris who does the analytic side of things. I think that’s fine in terms of skill sets but the point that Leisa was making is having that person, it needs to add up to a full-time person. It’s a lot more than you think it is as a job. I won’t repeat the interview because it’s boring but when you listen to it you’ll really get a sense that it’s actually quite a big job we are talking about. It’s not a light thing at all. It involves constantly pushing the user with the designers and developers and having someone that owns that and there ensuring it doesn’t slip out of people’s thinking.

Marcus: Okay I’ll listen.

Paul: Listen, you will enjoy it.

Okay so that brings us on to our second sponsor slot, which is you again Marcus.

Marcus: Me! I got to do all this talking with my bunged up nose.

Paul: Awww. Do you want me to do it? Do you want me to talk about Headscape?

Marcus: No.

Paul: No? Okay, fair enough.

Marcus: You can join in, you can help me out if I need any help.

This week I’m going to talk about design. Even though it says on our website, strategy, web design and development, I thought maybe I should just start with digital strategy and consulting because it’s first in the statement. But I thought I would start with design because that’s where Headscape started and that’s where we made our reputation all those many, many years ago.

Paul: That’s our roots.

Marcus: It is yes, and we still do a lot of it. So what I mean by design in this case? I’m talking about UX design which obviously is relevant as we are covering UX design in the series, but also visual design. But no one seems to like calling visual design, visual design. What’s visual design to these days?

Paul: User interface design, rather than UX design.

Marcus: UX and UI they you go. So I thought what would possibly be useful be to take everyone through the aspects of what it would be like to work with us on a project from a UI and UX point of view.

Paul: Okay. Oh I like this, well thought through. I’m very impressed.

Marcus: It’s amazing, well you know I get writing, I’ve got far too much probably.

Paul: I’m going to stop you if you go over your time. This is only a sponsored slot.

Marcus: How long have I got?

Paul: 30 seconds. Tops.

Marcus: Oh we’ve kind of done it then. We great.

Paul: Go on, say what you are going to say.

Marcus: We normally kick-off with a UX and UI-based workshop, which we discussed with James Box a couple weeks ago.

[Doorbell rings]

Paul: Hang on a minute, you carry on with this bit, the doorbell has just gone.

Marcus: Okay, let me know when you are back Paul. I’ll carry on.

Some of the things we will have dealt with in a prior consulting phase, but sometimes we bang straight into dealing with UX and UI. We will look at setting objectives with whoever we are talking to and prioritising those objectives, we talked about that many times in previous shows.

Paul: I’m back by the way.

Marcus: I was just talking about the fact that we start off by objective setting and prioritising those objectives we then move on to audiences, prioritising audiences, audience requirements and prioritising those which can sometimes be related to top tasks. We’ll do lots of exercises to get people involved, again I am repeating very much what we talked about James, but some the stuff that straight out of his book is things like designing a cereal box where you’re effectively giving people 10 things that they can have on your home page or landing page whatever it is you are designing and you need to divide up what those different things are onto the front cover of the cereal box size the back etc. It’s a prioritisation exercise but it’s fun. A sober version of that would be that we’d like you to design a mobile version of this page, and that way you’re enforcing a single column design and therefore enforcing prioritisation choices.

Another interesting one we do is six homepages which is again I think from James and Kenneth’s book where you ask people very quickly, you give me a sheet of A4 with six boxes on and asked them to design six different homepages. Everyone can do to or maybe three really easily and then it’s like, oh I don’t know what to do next. So you can sometimes get some quite wacky ideas out of that, some left-field type stuff which might inspire some other part of the process so it’s an interesting thing to do. Another one we do is giving people points to spend. You may have 10 items that are going to appear on your page and you’ve got 20 points to spend. You might want to spend 10 points on one and then one point on each the others or divide it up more evenly, it depends on the content type.

We’d also looking to developing user stories and user journeys. But we also do exercises relating to UI design, visual design. A favourite one is designing a reception area or waiting room. We have a set bunch of questions and ask is it light and airy or is it a closed room? What colour are the walls? What would be on the walls? What’s the furniture like? Is there somebody at reception? All this kind of stuff, the idea being that you’re making aesthetic choices but you not thinking about buttons navigation. That’s something we nearly always do. We sometimes will put people into groups and get to design different mood boards as well. We’ll give them access to image libraries, colour palettes and see if they can build up a different mood board to be presented at the end.

So that’s the kind of thing we cover in a workshop. Following that we would then split the process into two where one direction would be developing a prototype. We might have done some early wireframes or sketches in the workshop but we would then pull them into a more of an interactive type prototype of what the final website might be. Something this testable basically, where we could look at content and cause to action. The other direction we going would be to develop mood boards. Often part of the previous phase we’ve been through in the workshop would be looking at the type of words that are associated with the brand. And you do forget things like strength and reliability, but you often also get people saying we’re quite a fun organisation, with very innovative. They may not be part of the standard brand guidelines that you’d get so a mood boards is a great place to develop strength and reliable style as opposed to a fun and innovative one. So you can test things out there again without getting into what the navigation looks like or what button styles. You still set back from that.

Once you’ve agreed the direction with wireframes, we don’t sign them off, we just make sure we go in the right direction, once you’ve decided on a particular direction will then put together a few page mock-ups pulling in the wireframe direction with the mood to board direction. We’ll only do two or three because at that point we don’t want to spend ages doing 10 different mock-ups of different pages, we want to get into the front-end design, which is something I’m going to talk about next time I’m doing this.

But the final point on the process would be once we are at that point, we’ll do some testing. At the moment we tend to go down the online route, particularly with design testing because you can get to many hundreds of people rather than a few face-to-face.

I think one final point says that we approach projects in a more Agile way more and more it seems these days. We tend to cover most of what I’ve described and all the stuff I’m going to describe next time, tend to have more in tandem these days than in the stepped process that I’ve just described. It tends to be a shorter but more intense process these days.

So that’s a very short look at our design work.

Paul: I think is possibly the longest you’ve ever spoken on the podcast. It was really good mind though because we don’t often talk about processes very much do we? Not in any structured way. It sounds quite good when you say it like that Marcus. It sounds like we know we’re doing.

Marcus: Thanks very much Paul, although as I’m saying it I’m thinking oh I forgot that, and I forgot that.

Paul: But then there so many elements. That’s the trouble, you talk about process but actually it’s not so much a process as a methodology. Is like a toolkit of different things you used depending on the situation and the client and all the rest of it rather than not every client goes through exactly the same process. It’s interesting, it’s cool.

Marcus: Exactly, a good example would be mood boards which are talked a lot about there. With some clients were done many and we’ve moved on and done further mood boards after that and other clients they just don’t get them.

Paul: Or they’ve got such strong guidelines already that they are almost irrelevant.

Marcus: It’s unnecessary, so were not religiously sticking to our processes saying we must do this bit next. If it’s not working then try something else.

Paul: Right joke and then we can wrap up and going be ill.

Marcus: This is a football joke, I kind of like this one. It’s again from the Edinburgh Fringe. This is a guy called Alan Cochrane. Did we not see him?

Paul: Yes that was the guy at the DotNet Awards.

Marcus: He was very funny.

‘The first time I met my wife I knew she was a keeper, she was wearing massive gloves’.

Paul: Yeah. I wish to publicly apologise for this podcast, except for the interview which I thought was brilliant. But the mere Marcus today, we’ve let you down people.

Marcus: Do you think so? I think we’ve been kind of fireside and cosy.

Paul: A mug of cocoa. But next week is going to be really good. We’ve got Josh Clark coming on the show and began to talk about designing for the gaps, which is a bit abstract isn’t it but it’s the way that users move from one device to the other and how you can design around that. Also other types of gaps, like when they move from one social media to your website or through different departments within an organisation. And the danger is that in all these gaps users get lost or confused. How do we deal with that? So Josh Clark is going to come on talk about that is he’s an expert in that area. So it should be a really good show so make sure you join us for that. You so much for listening guys, is always much appreciated and we will be back healthy and happy next week.