How to Understand the Needs of Users

Paul Boag

On this episode of the Boagworld Show, we discuss the importance of understanding your users when designing an interface, and how to go about do exactly that.

This weeks show is sponsored by Balsamiq and FullStory.


Paul: On this episode of the Boagworld show, we discuss the importance of understanding your users when designing an interface, and how to go about doing exactly that. This season of the podcast is sponsored by Balsamiq and FullStory.

Hello and welcome to the Boagworld show, a podcast about all aspects of digital design, development and strategy. My name is Paul Boag, and joining me on this week's show is Marcus Lillington and Zack Naylor. Is that how you say your surname, Zack?

Zack: Naylor, yeah.

Paul: Naylor. I went a bit West Country. Naylor. Arr.

Zack: I actually think it has English influence that name.

Paul: Does it?

Zack: I believe so, I believe so. I can't be 100% certain.

Paul: It's not one I've ever heard of here. Is it you, Marcus, have you heard it?

Marcus: Yeah, but I don't know what it means. I might have to go and have a little google. Maybe it's somebody that nails things.

Paul: You reckon it's some ancient kind of craft or something like that, like a smith or …

Marcus: Carry on talking, I'm going to have a look.

Paul: You're googling it? Whereabouts are you based then, Zack?

Zack: Currently, I am in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is in the Midwest of the US, although I'm originally from the East Coast. I came from and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Paul: Okay. How did you end up in Minnesota then?

Zack: That's a very good question and a somewhat long story. I'll give you the cliff notes of it. I met my then girlfriend, now wife-

Paul: Ah, a woman. There you go. You could've just answered that, couldn't you?

Zack: That could be the end of the story. That could be even shorter than cliff notes. She moved with me to Pittsburgh for a while and we were living there. We got engaged and we were considering moving back, she's from South Dakota, also here in the Midwest. Interestingly enough, I got a job offer at a place called The Nerdery just months before our wedding. We moved halfway across the country, started a new job, got married, all in the course of about three months. Honestly, everything has been fantastic as a result, so wouldn't change a thing.

Paul: There you go.

Marcus: What was the name of the place with the job offer?

Zack: I used to work at a place called The Nerdery, and you heard that right.

Marcus: The Nerdery? I thought that's what you said. You'd fit in there, Paul.

Zack: I was one of the original principal UX designers there. That's right, that's right.

Paul: In theory, no I wouldn't. Me and my son have had long conversations about this, and apparently I'm a geek, and he's a nerd. Apparently there's a difference. Your son would be a nerd. People that are more maths orientated and sciencey, they're nerds, while if you're more techy orientated, apparently you're a geek. That is only my son's definition however. I don't know how official that is.

Marcus: Speaking of definitions, Naylor name meaning, English, mainly Northern, occupational name for a maker of nails. There you go.

Paul: It really is like it sounds. That's so funny.

Zack: There we are.

Paul: Then the northerners aren't sophisticated are they in their choice of terminology. Bless them.

Marcus: Like the West Country people.

Paul: Yeah, so I can't talk, can I.

Marcus: Mind you, that's where I was born, so we're all the same.

Paul: It is funny, because with names like that that originate over here, often times you find them, it's like Boag, which is what my name is supposed to be, is much more common in Australia or North America than it is in Britain now, even though it was originally a Scottish name, so there you go.

What do you do, Zack? What's your role?

Zack: We actually started a user research and insights platform for design and product teams. I'm the CEO and co-founder of that. The name of the company there is Aurelius. So the last name just like Marcus Aurelius.

Paul: Right, yeah.

Marcus: There you go.

Paul: I see. What does that platform do?

Zack: What Aurelius does is it really helps you make sense of all your user research notes and data. You go into Aurelius and you can add, tag, organize, search and create key insights from all of your notes, so that you can focus more on building and designing awesome products and features. We basically help you make sense of what you do in research faster and easier than ever before.

Paul: I now see why you volunteered to do this episode, because it's perfectly in your realm.

Zack: Indeed, and it ties back to when I was mentioning even during my time at The Nerdery. That was one of the reasons that they had asked me to join that team at the time, is they were, design was maturing at that company, it was a service company so consultants, and they were doing a lot more strategy and research. I actually helped build that practice and establish those processes and really bring that to design for not only them but their clients as well.

Paul: The new app that you're running, is that … I say new app, how long's it been going? Have you been doing this for long?

Zack: That's a great question, also somewhat of a longer answer. In short, our version two is going to be ended in beta on February 2nd of this year. We have just publicly launched the site, we had hundreds and hundreds of beta customers. Beta will now be ending and all that really means is people have to start paying for it.

Paul: Right, okay. It's relatively new that it's become a full-time enterprise then, is it?

Zack: Indeed. Version two went into beta I believe in August. Beta will end next Friday.

Paul: Are you full-time doing this or are you working at The Nerdery too?

Zack: Oh, no, I don't actually work at The Nerdery. I still work full-time as an experience designer as we're building this, because Aurelius is 100% bootstrapped.

Paul: I see, right. I'm with you, good for you. None of that venture capital crap.

Zack: Exactly. I spent a lot of time in my career at startups as well doing the same work, helping build research practice, more customer centered practice and I've seen just how often funding and money can mess up vision and purity of intention.

Paul: Also, it just doesn't make a lot of sense from a business point of view from my point of view, because you're giving half the ownership of your business.

Zack: That's just it. I mean, I don't mind getting on our soapbox about this to be honest with you, Paul, because it's actually something that's really important for me and also my co-founder Joseph, because you're exactly right, you're giving up ownership of that. Which is, I'm not here to tell anybody not to take venture capitalism, but when people ask why we don't do it, it's like … Well, look, we're not doing this to get rich, we're doing it to solve the problem. We live and work in this space and we care more about that than we do getting rich.

Paul: In some ways it kind of comes down to what your motivation is for doing it, like you say. Whether you're trying to build a lifestyle business, in which case it just needs to earn enough really to pay your salaries and stuff, or whether you're looking to sell it to Google down the line where you need to make it big and impressive. Me and Marcus, we both survived the dotcom boom and bust, so I think we tend to be quite cynical about that whole let's build it and sell it off attitude, because it doesn't always work.

Zack: Right.

Marcus: Absolutely.

Zack: Right, I agree. It's a lot more theater. It's a lot more in product theater than it is actually solving a problem, but I digress.

Marcus: It's a good digression. It's one we've lived through.

Paul: Yeah. Do you remember, Marcus, I mean, there was a point when we were running the dotcom where I was being told to hire more staff even though I had nothing for them to do just so it looked impressive and that we were growing rapidly.

Marcus: Exactly. You have to have more than 100 people working for you, even though we didn't really have enough work for about 10.

Paul: It was ridiculous.

Zack: That means what? Exactly, right? You have a lot of people who aren't doing the right thing. Interestingly enough, that's the topic of our chat today, right, Paul, understanding what your customers need. If you're building a company and you're building a product that isn't focused on them, who are you building that for? You're right, you're building it to impress someone else for reasons that are completely absent of what your customers need.

Paul: Did you notice how professional Zack was then, Marcus? How he brought it back to the actual subject we're supposed to be talking about?

Marcus: Yeah, well, he can come along whenever he likes.

Paul: I know, that's impressive isn't it. He's like a professional. How did that happen?

Marcus: You and Joseph look very cool on the website as well.

Zack: Thank you very much, thank you very much. As you've seen that, fun fact, we run our own podcast, so I know exactly how this needs to go sometimes and I'm often in your shoes where I have to wrangle people back onto a topic of where we need to stay focused. I will do my best to keep myself in check.

Paul: I see. Now that makes sense. You do look cool. Those are very posh photographs. Zack, you look very contemplative there if I may say so, like you're considering the world at large.

Marcus: This is for anyone who's listening.

Paul: Yeah, it's worth looking at, because those are two smart individuals. Actually, Zack, you look like you might be some kind of serial killer.

Zack: I think that you might be right. I haven't quite figured it out myself.

Paul: Yeah. You look like you're considering whether to kill your 10th victim.

Marcus: There's a bit of Gary Oldman in there, isn't there?

Paul: It's the intensity, he's very intense isn't he, Marcus? I'm feeling quite intimidated by having Zack on the show at this point

Zack: We can wrap it if you like.

Paul: Yeah. Perhaps this was a big mistake, I don't know. Let's move on quickly. Actually, I was going to talk a little bit about my current obsession with Black Mirror, but considering we've got Zack on the show, I'm not sure that's a good idea, you know? If he's that way inclined.

Marcus: That's my next thing on the list. I just finished watching The Crown, very different, but absolutely brilliant I thought. Yeah, that's my next thing.

Paul: I can't really talk about it, can I?

Marcus: No, I don't mind. They're all separate entities, aren't they? It's not chronological or anything is it?

Paul: No, it's not. If I start talking about an episode, then I'm going to give away, you know how good a twists and things they all have in them.

Marcus: That's true, although I do know some of the stories already.

Paul: Yeah, that is true. They do get around. It's a really good season. Zack, have you watched any of these?

Zack: I think I watched the first, maybe two or three episodes of the first season, and that was it. My wife was not convinced that it was a show that she wanted to watch. I'm sure as you can imagine, working full-time and trying to build a company and have a new family, I don't have a whole lot of time to watch this stuff. If it doesn't pass the wife test, I don't get to watch it.

Paul: I'm not even allowed to watch it in the same room as my wife if she can't hear it, even just having it on the screen is enough to get me sent out of the room. It is very dark, isn't it?

Marcus: I've heard the first two are kind of dark in a bad way, and then it gets brilliant.

Paul: Yeah. I think Zack is talking about the first two of the entire show.

Marcus: Yes. I've not watched any of them.

Paul: Have you not watched any?

Marcus: No.

Paul: You're in for a treat!

Marcus: Exactly. I've got them all lined up waiting to go.

Paul: Oh, that is … Actually, don't binge watch them. You will be permanently scarred if you binge watch them. It is so dark. It is so, so dark. Have you watched any other Charlie Brooker stuff?

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: Yeah. It is still very much Charlie Brooker, but he's gone into a dark place with this series. It's so good. Well, that's all right. I won't drone on about it too much as you've got no frame of reference at all at the moment. Actually, the first one is still one of my favorites, even though it is potentially the most disturbing of them all. That's what Black Mirror is really good about, the whole thing has got that possibility of believability to it, you could imagine some of this stuff happening.

Zack: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

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Okay. As Zack has already professionally said earlier on in the show, we are actually talking today about users and user needs. The logic behind doing this is that this whole season is about getting better at doing user interface design and maybe identifying some of the areas where we're sometimes slightly weaker in that process. I would say doing our user research is one area where we tend to be a little bit weak, we tend to jump into Photoshop or Sketch or whatever a little bit too quickly, and we don't really get to know our users first. I thought it would be worth talking a little bit about that before we get going.

Zack, with you guys where you're working full-time while you're bootstrapping this product, is your role as a designer or a user researcher? What's your role there?

Zack: Yeah. It's actually a combination of both. Interestingly enough, I think the role I tend to play and probably have been playing for the last five or six years across different roles and companies is more of what I might call product strategy or product management. It's funny, because I definitely come from a UX background right, but I usually tell people I'm one of the laziest designers you'll find because I find that I spend most of my time convincing people of what not to do, by convincing them we shouldn't design anything at all.

Paul: Yes, I know what you mean. I kind of get that. How do you go about approaching … Let's take this, I suppose this app that you've just built isn't the best example because essentially you're building for yourself and people like you in that. How do you normally go about doing your user research?

Zack: Yeah, for sure. Some of that depends on whether or not you're working on something that already exists or if you are trying to build something brand new. I mean, I actually think Aurelius is a pretty good example because, the funny thing about that, this was version two of Aurelius. Version one of it was very much a brainchild focused on a holistic view of product strategy. Then what we did frankly speaking is we did a bunch of research, we had actually launched that with paying customers and realized that was not the core focus and the core problem that people needed to solve.

Getting back to I guess an answer to your question is how do you go about that? If you've got something out there, it really is just evaluating whether or not it's delivering the value people need that they're willing to pay you as a business for. That's the core fundamentals of any research. A friend of mine who I used to work with and I steal this quote from him all the time is, the dirty little secret of UX design is it's not just about the user. In fact, it's almost less about the user in some cases. You have to sell your ideas to the people you're working with and for. The funny thing about that though is that user research actually helps you do that.

Paul: Which is a really good point, actually. It reminds me of some of the projects I've worked on in the past where people have brought me in and they're going, "We can't get anyone to care about user experience." You end up saying to them, "That's because people care about what they care about. They care about meeting their targets or deadlines or whatever they've got, and you've got to show how user experience design could help them achieve their business goals and business aim."

Zack: Without question, without question. It's just funny, I didn't mean to cut you off, Paul, but two things-

Paul: No, no. Carry on.

Zack: I actually just recently gave a talk on that very topic of how to sell your ideas. The punchline of the joke is that you have to focus on helping somebody, business stakeholder or otherwise, understand how it's good for them, why it helps them achieve something.

I realize I didn't actually fully answer your question, I mean, how you go about doing research, regardless if it's a new product, existing product, whatever, you start by setting really solid goals for what we're trying to achieve with the product and the user experience, because from there, we can start to say, what questions do we have? What answers do we need to help us meet those goals?

You build off of that and you just simply say, we either have those answers or we don't. If we don't, you get to walk in and be the expert and say, "You know what? I know how to help you get answers to those questions so you can feel more confident that we're going to be meeting the needs and the aims that you're after."

Paul: It's also, I think, about, that whole thing about knowing what your goals are is what we were talking about last week, but it's also knowing what the user's goal is, and also what you want to know about the users. So many companies turn around and say something along the lines of, "We know about the users, we know everything we need to know about users. We don't need to do user research, because marketing did that a while back."

No disrespect to marketing teams, and it really isn't disrespect because they've got a set of things that they need to know about users, they need to know a bit about their demographics, they need to know about their likes and dislikes, whether they drive an Audi and read The Guardian or The New York Times or whatever. Those kinds of things are what are relevant to marketers, but they're not as relevant to us as UX designers.

The kind of things that we care about, or certainly I care about when I go into a project are things like what tasks are the users wanting to complete, what questions do they have. Things like what pain points are you aiming to solve, or do they expect you to solve for them, and what's their ultimate goal. Sure, I mean, I care to some degree that they read The New York Times if The New York Times influences them, and I care about other influences like review sites or friends and family, but actually I don't need to know that they've got 2.3 children particularly.

I mean, Marcus, am I being naïve?

Marcus: No, I don't think you are. I think we've spent a lot of time over the years developing very detailed personas that kind of often go into those areas in a big way and end up being not really something we focus on that much like you say. It's very kind of task orientated, the majority of the work that we do, anyway. Yeah.

Just talking about marketers reminded me of a company we were working with last year. Their marketing department had done some user research and got a company based in London to do this research, and I swear they made it up.

Zack: That never happens. That never, ever happens.

Marcus: I'm going to talk about it now. One of my issues with user research is getting to the user. Sorry, I'm going off on a tangent as usual.

Paul: No, no, no. That's all right.

Marcus: A lot of the time with a lot of the clients we work, this particular client I mentioned there was one of them, and I remember saying to them, "It'd be great if we could get some input from some of your users. Obviously I can speak to internal stakeholders and get their feelings on things, but it'd be great if we could balance that against some users." "Well, we did that." It was all kind of middle manager in corporate company of 2,000 people. I didn't even get an idea of which paper they read, let alone what they were interested in.

We've also found with some other firms that we worked with that you just can't get to the end users because they're kind of, they're too important busy people. I do a lot of work for law firms, and their end users are chief execs and people like that. I've pushed and pushed over the years, and I've never managed to actually sit down and talk to any people like that, or even get on the phone.

As I said, my problem with user research is just actually getting to people. I've tried all sorts of different ways, I've tried talking to, I was thinking middle ground as if you speak to salespeople with an organization or if they have live chat operators that's another one, because you're thinking, these people are dealing direct with users every day and speaking to them directly, so they're going to know what they want, they're going to know what their pain points are, et cetera, et cetera.

I've found that interviewing these people, doing surveys with them, you don't tend to get a lot of helpful information at the end of it, which is frustrating. I hope you're not waiting for a, "This is what we need to do."

Paul: Yeah. You're basically saying it's all hopeless and we should give up.

Marcus: No, no, because obviously with some, you'll work with some clients and it's really easy to access the users and others it isn't. On the ones when it isn't, I think you just have to trust your own judgment, trust your experience, trust what the client is telling you and work together and work out a vision if you like of what the different user experiences are through wireframe and things like that with the client. Then launch something, and then see how that works for people, if you're getting feedback that's good or bad or, I guess if you're not getting any feedback at all, then probably chances are it's working okay.

Surveys are another thing. You think, well, yes, we can survey, that's what we did with the live chat operators at this company. You tend to end up just getting a love or hate response, and it's not very valuable. My answer there I guess is you just need to sort of trust your own judgment and experience and delve into the opinions of the client maybe a little more deeply than if you were able to access the users.

Zack: Marcus, that's actually a really fair people that I try to share with people once in a while where sometimes it's okay to just dive in, make something, and then learn about that. There's other sides though, I think it just takes some intuition and practice, and maybe this comes with experience in design, I'm not sure, but there's other times where you do have to be careful and say, well, we shouldn't actually make anything yet, because we're not confident enough that this thing we're going to make is going to provide the right value.

The danger there is that if you, let's say you prototype or just very fidelity make something to get feedback on, you could fall into the trap of optimizing the wrong thing. You could make a very, very good solution to the wrong problem, if that makes sense. I think some of that like I said comes down to intuition.

But yes, listen to the people who should be the experts in the field. It really just comes down to asking really good questions and saying, what is the value we're trying to provide? If you get a sense for whether or not they're confident and the answer to that or not I think dictates how you move forward.

Paul: I think it's about getting as close to the user as you can. I mean, the problem I have with what you were saying of just listen to the client in such situations, and I'm paraphrasing you probably unfairly, is that the client often is some middle manager who's never really had any direct contact with the user, and he's been told what the user is like by somebody in the marketing department, who in turn has never spoken to the user, but has outsourced a user research piece three years ago.

In that situation, okay, if you can't get the user, fair enough, but at the very least, it would be good to get the raw data that was used for that research piece three years ago.

Zack: Yeah.

Paul: It's getting as close as you can. I think it's also going into it with your eyes wide open about the fact that you're doing this blind, and that there's a good chance you'll make mistakes along the way in doing so.

Marcus: No pun intended there, Paul. Your eyes wide open but you're doing it blind. I quite like that.

Paul: That was almost like I was clever.

Zack: That's a good point. I mean, recognizing what exists and what doesn't and being open to the fact that, yeah, you might get it wrong. One of the ways though too to convince people that you should actually take a step back and commission another study that's not three years old, again though, if you set up those goals really well and everybody agrees on what we're trying to do, just by simply asking questions, what do we know? Okay, so maybe we did a study three years ago. Do we have data from that study that helps us answer the questions on what we're trying to do today.

Paul: Yeah. For me, the list of things that I want to know about users going in, there's tasks and questions, feelings, the context that the user's in is often useful, which you can usually make an informed judgment about that. Context might be, are they mainly going to be accessing this from work or home, are they going to be out and about, those kinds of things.

I care about what influences them, but again, marketers are normally pretty good at that, they're pretty hot at knowing what is influencing their decision making. What the user's ultimate goal is, again, that's a fairly easy one to guesstimate at, as is what pain points they're experience, and what touch points, in other words, what are the different platforms and interaction points from things like attending an event all the way through to using social media.

Really, the big one is this questions and tasks, is knowing the nitty-gritty questions and tasks that a user wants to do, and that is what I think a lot of people make guesses about and are wrong. The way you can tell that people guess about it and get it wrong is by going to the FAQ section on any website. Inevitably the questions that are asked there are questions that they wish users would ask, rather than questions that they actually do ask.

Marcus: So true, so true.

Paul: That is the one area where I start to get really twitchy when I don't get access to the user, is are you really sure this is really what people ask and want to know and what questions they've got.

Let's have a quick look at, talk about the different types of data that maybe we can gather on users. We've got two types. There's quantitative data, I have real problems with this because I have real problems with quantitative and qualitive, you see my problem.

Marcus: Which words do you have the problem with, Paul?

Paul: I'm not saying it again.

Zack: Let's just call it numbers and opinions.

Paul: Yes! Much better. The numbers, obviously you can look at things like Google Analytics, right? Great thing about numbers as quantitative is that we don't have this problem of having to access the user. It's always a good starting point. Things like Google Analytics is really good obviously for this. You can see problems on an existing site, you can see search terms people are entering, you can see how they're moving around the site, you can see where they're coming from, all those kinds of things. You can learn quite a lot about a user just from looking at Google Analytics.

Then if you add something like a session recorder on top of that, you can start to see how they move around. I mean, actually in truth, you can find out the same kind of thing on Google Analytics, but session recorders in my opinion just make it a little bit easier to see. It's things like how long, how much attention are they really giving this website. That gives you an idea of how busy they are, that kind of thing, and things like what are they looking at, what kind of content are they viewing. All of this helps build up a little bit of a picture of people.

The other thing you can do and I love doing and I'm doing a lot at the moment are surveys. When people come to the site, trying to encourage them to do a top task analysis. Now, we haven't really got time to get into top task analysis now, but later on I reference some articles you can read, and one of them I think is not about top task analysis. I will add in one about top task analysis so that you can look up and find out about that. Doing things like that, maybe if you can't get direct contact with the user, at least you can run a survey. Go on, Marcus.

Marcus: Sorry, Paul, to interrupt. The best user research I ever did, and this was for a hospital, was standing with my clipboard, going and sitting down next to people in the coffee shop and that kind of thing with a load of top task, I had 70 or 80 or whatever it was, and getting people to prioritize them. I think it was pick five and then prioritize those five. That was the best, most useful user research I've ever done. We did that alongside an online one, and the online was not a lot of use at all.

Paul: That's interesting. Why did you find the in person one better?

Marcus: Because I was going up to people and talking to them. I'm being a little bit unfair on that one, actually. That particular survey, the online survey wasn't great, because we didn't get a lot of response. That's unfair on that one. I probably spoke to 100 people in a day, it was fabulous.

Paul: Yeah. It's such a great way of doing it. It's like, at the moment a problem that I'm having is, I'm doing some work with some universities as I always seem to be doing, and they've got a big national survey coming up at the moment, and because this big national data is being collected, nobody wants to put any other surveys in front of users, in front of students at the moment. You can just walk into a student union in that situation and talk to a load of people. I think that's a really good idea. I'm actually going to suggest that.

So yeah, you could gather this kind of quantitative research that can give you a better picture. There's also the qualitative stuff as well, the-

Marcus: Opinion.

Paul: Opinion, that was it. Thank you. You can look at social media. I find that a really, that's a really good way of getting to know users. If you even for example just looking at, I don't know, a profile picture of someone like Zack, you can learn a lot about somebody apparently according to what I was saying in the introduction about him a killer.

Marcus: Just dig that, dig that hole even more.

Paul: I think Zack has left at this point.

Zack: I was also busy digging a hole, because I'm the killer. I'm just trying to keep up with the jokes, Paul.

Marcus: That was mentioned, I don't know, two or three series ago, we interviewed someone, my apologies, I can't remember who you were, but it was this idea of pre-user research, just going snooping in social media, which I thought was genius. I haven't done any yet. Yeah, fabulous. It takes no interaction to do that, you're literally just going and looking at what people are saying. I'm just thinking of some of our current clients, though. There isn't really anywhere to look like that. It depends on the client.

Paul: Yeah. It depends on the demographic of the audience doesn't it, as to whether they're that kind of people. Then as you say, there are interviews, which effectively is what you did when you went to the coffee shop wasn't it, is you were chatting with people, you just used top task analysis as something to build the conversation around a little bit.

Zack, have you ever done group workshops with users?

Zack: Yeah, definitely. Some of the stuff where you think about … I don't know, maybe some people call it co-creation or co-design or whatever that might be. Yeah, unquestionably. One of the startups I used to work at, this was a brand new product, and this is a good example for that, right, is we actually, me, made some guesses on what these interfaces and what this flow should be on the app that we were building. Now, I got to a point where I didn't feel like I had very informed decisions anymore.

What I did, frankly speaking, is I took my sketches and I walked around and I talked to people. Imagine that you're doing this and you're walking through and you get to this certain point where you then have to do, you click submit or whatever the case maybe. My challenge was I didn't know how that information should be presented after that. I just asked people with a blank sheet of paper, I said draw for me what you think would happen after this.

I literally just took a composite of all these things. It confirmed some things I thought, it brought to light some things I didn't, and then I added that in. Of course, later once we launched that, we did proper usability testing on it, but the fact of the matter is, we made a more informed decision going in, even with just a very, very informal effort.

Paul: I'm a great fan of that. I'm a great fan of, just don't make it too complicated. The number of times I've gone into companies and I've said, "We need to do some user research." "Do we have to?" I go, "Why? Why are you so hesitant?" "Well, we got this agency in three years ago to do user research and it cost a lot of money. We didn't find it that useful." "Ah, okay. There's your problem." Do something lightweight, get in there and do it yourself as well. You shouldn't be keeping users at arms length and hiring somebody else. Just going and spending time around users will lead to a better product.

Zack: I could not agree more. One of the things that makes research in some places unapproachable or not even a topic to bring up is exactly what you're saying, is we like to pretend that this needs to be very ceremonious and very clinical and process driven. The reality of it isn't. I want to tie it back to, you started this by saying, you feel like our industry, we have a tendency to be weak in research and we tend to focus on, let's start jumping into Photoshop or Sketch, the other examples that you gave.

I completely agree. I think one of the reasons we are weaker in research and we are stronger in that is because it's what we want, it's what we're comfortable in. Just keeping it informal, one of the easiest ways of doing that again comes back to just helping somebody say, I can help get you some answers that you will need to help you do your job better Mr. and Mrs. Stakeholder.

Like I said, I hate to keep bringing it back to this, but I swear every talk I give comes back to this, setting up those good goals means you'll know that you're asking the right questions. It doesn't matter how formal or informal it is. Even if you do three of them, you know that you'll have been getting the right information to directly help you make better decisions and meet the needs of the people you're working with and for. That's how you sell that.

To your point, just going and doing it, even a little bit, if that little bit is way more valuable than this massive expensive study they got before, all of a sudden they're going to trust you a lot more and you get to do something even more sophisticated in time.

Paul: The best user research I ever did, which is a little bit similar in some ways to Marcus' example is I was working on an eCommerce site. We just spent a day visiting people in their homes. It was, obviously we arranged it beforehand, we didn't just turn up on their doorstep, "Can we have a look 'round your house?"

Those sessions were absolutely enlightening, they were just so good, because you got a glimpse into people's lives and how they really access the internet, and you had a chat with them, we drank lots of tea. There was an elderly audience, so we talked about the war a lot.

I didn't come away from that day with any kind of hard and fast results based on a particular prototype they'd used or anything like that, but I knew them. When I sat down to design, I had real people in my head that I was creating this for, and that made such an enormous difference, it really did.

Marcus: That's what personas are meant to do. Really good personas, ones … was it MailChimp that did some brilliant personas?

Paul: Yeah, they did.

Marcus: Those were so well done and so well presented and placed around the office I'm sure that they became what they're meant to be, which is this, for a designer, for a writer, whatever, you're writing for the Dave, Sara, whatever. I often find that, I found in the past that maybe not enough effort goes into them, which is something I hadn't thought of before we had this conversation. It's a bit like doing user journey maps. You can leave it at the spreadsheet stage, or you can turn it into something that people might remember.

Paul: That brings us on to communicating your research isn't it really, there's no point doing all of this if it's not in front of you to remind you. I'm the way whenever I do any research like this, I'll turn it into something. At the most basic level, that could be a set of user story cards of tasks and actions that people want to complete, but that's not exactly the most inspiring. That's a bit more kind of functional.

Then there's empathy maps, which is something I'm a bit more enthusiastic about, which are like personas, but focused more on the kind of things that we care about as UX designers, so tasks and touch points and pain points and things like that rather than he reads The Guardian.

Then of course there's customer journey mapping as well, where you look at the whole lifecycle. I think customer journey mapping in my opinion is slightly different. That's not so much about … It is about the user obviously, but it's not about creating that empathetic relationship that you were talking about Marcus. It's more about knowing where the particular product fits into that journey and that lifecycle. Even though it's about the customer, it's actually a bit more product orientated.

Zack: Yeah. It's a bit more focused on the service delivery and how the customer is part of this whole orchestrated effort, both on our side and theirs.

Paul: Yeah. That's a good one. Basically, I think the one thing we want people to take away from this is go and do something. Something is better than nothing. The closer you can get to the user, the better it will be for you as well. I mean, certainly, there's two occasions that spring to mind. If you're a designer out there and you're thinking to yourself, "It's a lot of effort," which I don't blame you to be frank, it is a lot easier-

Marcus: Speaking to people as well, you know, no designers like doing that.

Paul: No, exactly. If you're sitting there thinking that, and yeah, it is more effort than sitting in front of your computer with Sketch and Photoshop, but here's the thing. One is that you know those times when you get stuck with a design, just like Zack was saying a minute ago, if you get stuck with a design, get up from your desk and ask a user to design it for you and just see what you get back. You'll be off and away in no time. It'll help you with that.

The other time it'll help you is when two people disagree over it. When you show it to a client and the client goes, "I don't like that," then put it in front of some users, talk about it with some users to get another perspective. Now, next week we're going to get much more into actually testing properly and all of that kind of stuff. Now I just want to encourage you to spend a bit of time with users and talking to them.

Zack: Yeah. I couldn't agree more.

Paul: Good. Good! We're in agreement. Hurrah!

Right. Let's talk about our second sponsor very quickly, and then we'll give you some further reading to keep you going until next week, and then we'll wrap up. Our second sponsor is FullStory. I was talking a minute ago wasn't I about session recorders as a way of getting glimpses inside the minds of users, and FullStory is exactly this, it's a session recorder. There are loads of tools in the designer's arsenal to give you a broad look at what generally is going on with your product, so analytics packages and that kind of stuff.

Nothing beats the kind of visceral, personal understanding that's given by watching real people move around your website and interact with it in real time, all the time without realizing that they're being watched, right? It's the closest you're ever going to get to being David Attenborough for your users, that you can kind of see people in their natural environment. It's a bit creepy I admit, but it's all anon … Oh, for crying out loud. Why I'm a podcaster is beyond me. It's all anonymous, let's go with that. It's not really creepy, but it's great for you to be able to see what people are doing and how they're interacting.

These kinds of session replays uncover all kinds of user experience and general design issues that you couldn't find out in any other way, you couldn't find it out with analytics. Analytics would show you that people are dropping out in a page, but you wouldn't know why. Now, yes you could do user interviews and usability studies, but again, as soon as you put someone in a false environment, they're going to behave differently.

That's why session recorders, but why FullStory in particular? FullStory offers the highest fidelity session playback available, and that's because it indexes every single event on a page, so you can search and segment any action at all. You could say for example, I want to see everybody that gets so frustrated that they start repeatedly and angrily clicking on something, you know, rage clicking, and it will show you all of the users that rage clicked. You can go, okay, why have they got to that point of being so frustrated and you could watch back their sessions and see what happens. You could get insights into absolutely anything that goes on on your website.

Sign up today and you could get a free month for free of their pro account. You don't need to enter a credit card or anything like that. If at the end of the free month which is on the pro account you don't feel that you can justify buying it, then that's absolutely fine, you can carry on for free, but with a limit of 1,000 sessions per month. You still can get a taster of what's going on with your website absolutely for free. You can find all of that by going to

Okay, let's talk about a bit further reading. I promised you a top task analysis article. There's a great one on A List Apart that, if you just google A List Apart top task analysis, you'll get that back as the first result. It's called What Really Matters: Focusing on Top Tasks. Now, top tasks is a technique that was created by Gerry McGovern and is an absolutely superb technique that I use all the time, and Gerry wrote this article where he's laid out in depth how it works, how do you go about analyzing the result, the whole lot. Check that out, it's really good.

There's also a podcast we've done with Leisa Reichelt a while back. She used to work for the Government Digital Service in the UK, is now working for the equivalent in Australia. We did a whole podcast on doing use research, which is You might want to listen to that one back, because it'll add a lot to today's conversation. It's not at all the same, we cover different stuff, but it's a similar subject.

There's also a great article by the Nielsen Group, so that's Jakob Nielsen, and that is When to Use Which User Experience Research Methods. If you google that, you'll get it. It's a really good article that lays out all the different options from things like card sorting and A/B testing all the way through to ethnographic field studies, usability lab studies, all of these kinds of things. It tells you which ones you might want to use in which different situations. Obviously, this is a bit more grown up than the just pick it up and go and talk to a user stuff, but it's quite useful to have a look at, because you'll be surprised at how accessible some of the tools are, and how although they've got fancy names, is really quite straightforward. For example, ethnographic field studies is just going to talk to people in their homes. It's not as complicated as maybe it sounds.

Another article is one of mine, called Adapting Empathy Maps For UX Design. This is my replacement for personas, really. If you do a google on empathy maps on my site, then you'll get that one back. Then the final one is an article I wrote for Smashing Magazine entitled All You Need To Know About Customer Journey Mapping. If you want to know a little bit more about that, you can check that out.

I was trying to think of some next steps we could ask people to do. I've got three, I wondered whether you two have got anything, but my three are, I would encourage, if I could, if somebody's listening to this show, what would I suggest that they do next. One option would be to define and prioritize your user groups, tick. Second one would be run a customer journey mapping workshop to try it out. Then another one might be personally, yourself, spend some time with users. Those are three really simple things you could do.

Zack: Yeah.

Paul: Zack, your goals one I imagine must be one too-

Zack: Absolutely. I like everything you just shared Paul, but everything, everything, everything that we're going to do in design should come from something we all agreed is what we're trying to achieve. It just makes our job easier when somebody truly believes that we care about what they're trying to do. They'll trust us more when we've demonstrated to them that we actually understand the problem that we're trying to solve, both for our company and our customers.

Paul: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Marcus, would you, I'd guess you recommend that going out to a coffee shop type thing?

Marcus: It was certainly the most effective thing, because I spent a lot of time interviewing clients doing circular interviews, and a lot of effort goes into that. This was a bit of an enlightening moment for me. We had to do all of the top task stuff first, which we did with the clients, basically listing everything that a user might possibly want to do on a website in this case, and we used analytics for that mostly, so you've got to do your homework. Then once you've got that, just read how Gerry McGovern does it and just go out there and just get people to fill in forms. Then at the end of it, you've got all this hard data that you can use to prioritize all your tasks. It's fab.

Zack: Sorry, Paul.

Paul: Go on, Zack. No, you go ahead.

Zack: I was going to say on that note, something Marcus just said, that you've got all that raw data, a takeaway I would really encourage people to do that I find doesn't happen often enough is I would challenge people to do more with that raw data. Don't just take it at face value and say we heard this, so we should do this. It's rarely ever that black and white. Really sit there and ask yourself, why did we see this? It's just going back to some of that quantitative data, the numbers, where maybe we saw something happen in analytics, but we don't know why. Spend more time figuring out why you saw or learned something you did. It'll make your designs better.

Paul: That actually is such a good point. It's very dangerous if you go down this road, you can go too far down this road. The Google example of where they user tested between 15 different shades of blue, you know, data should empower and facilitate the designer to do their job. It shouldn't constrain the designer or do the design for them. That's certainly how I view it, anyway.

Marcus, do you have a joke?

Marcus: Firstly I just have to apologize for my granddaughter being very loud through most of this podcast.

Paul: Oh, I haven't heard her at all, so there you go.

Marcus: I can hear the squeaking and giggling coming from the next room.

Paul: How can that ever be something you have to apologize for? If your granddaughter was screaming her head off in distress maybe, but giggling?

Marcus: No, not at all. She's being daft by the sound of it. Yes, I do have a joke. This is from Ian at work, Ian Luckraft.

Paul: Oh, yeah?

Marcus: I walked down a street where the houses were numbered 64k, 128k, 256k, 512k, and 1mb. That was a trip down memory lane.

Paul: Dear me. That's quite good, I like that one. I approve.

Zack, where can people find out more about you, then? You do a podcast, where's that? Start with that.

Zack: Yeah. That's right on our website at Aurelius, so you can go to, Click on podcast, you can see all the episodes we've got there. That's pretty much what takes up most of my time, and pretty easy to find there.

Paul: Okay. If you want to give the whole product a go, then you can sign up from there, your 14 day free trial from the looks of it.

Zack: That's right.

Paul: And the beta's open now is it? No, you said it's going to be soon, isn't it?

Zack: Yeah. Everybody who's currently in our beta, that ends on Friday, February 2nd. You're welcome to go and sign up for a free trial even now, it's just the beta for those people will end at that time.

Paul: Okay, right. I get it, I get it. That makes sense. Wonderful. All right, if you do a lot of user research, it looks like a really good tool. I haven't yet tried it out for myself, but it looks good, so check that out.

The last thing I wanted to say to people really is just encourage you to sign up to our Slack channel, I'm pushing it quite heavily this season, simply because that's where all of the speakers have come from, but also we've been having some really good conversations. In fact, I haven't really achieved a huge amount today because I've been in Slack a lot of the time. It's better than real work, isn't it? If you fancy joining that, then come on and join our little community at, and you can sign up there and we'd love to have you join us.

Next week, we're going to look at how to establish some design principles in order to build your design, which is with the very lovely Leigh Howells I believe will be joining us next week, Marcus.

Marcus: How wonderful.

Paul: I know. We haven't spoken to him for a little while. Well, I haven't. I imagine you speak to him most days.

Marcus: I'll be seeing him tomorrow.

Paul: There you go. Lucky him. All right, that about wraps it up for this time. Thank you very much for listening, and thank you too, Zack, for joining us. We'll see you again next week. Goodbye.

Marcus: Bye.