Posted on 23 Dec 2002
by D. Keith Robinson (dkr)
Rated 4.18 (Ratings: 9)
- More articles in IA/Usability
Do You Know Your Users?That is a tough question to answer. It could mean so many different things. That's fairly obvious. But it's a question everyone who works with technology that other people use should ask themselves. I've often asked myself this question, and have come up with different answers at different times on different projects. I came to the realization at some point that for the most part I knew who my users were, and I had an idea of how they used my sites, but other than that all I had was a bunch of data and even more assumptions. I've been lucky enough to be involved in some formal usability studies before, and it was an informative, eye-opening experience. The main problem with these formal studies is that they are expensive. They are also arcane and time consuming. In my case we hired a company to come in, set up studies, conduct them and hand over the results at the end. I was able to weasel my way into these sessions as an observer and that was much more informative to me as one who actually works on the site than all of the statistics and reports combined. I couldn't help but think, "Hey, I could do that." I'm the guy who actually designs and builds the sites, why not cut out the middleman? That's what this article is all about. I'm going to show you some ways to get to know your users in a real world, out-from-behind-the-glass kind of way. There is a place for formal usability and if you have the opportunity (read: time and money) to do them, I recommend doing so. It's also great to learn from what others have experienced, to read books on usability and to keep up with the gurus. I've done all of those and frankly they all pale in comparison to the information I get from, what I like to call, "Gorilla Usability."
What Is Gorilla Usability?Don't worry. I know how to spell. I imagine you've heard the term "guerilla marketing"? Well, it's kind of like that, but a lot less subtle. It's about getting out from behind the video camera, the reports, the stats and all the guru commandments and actually getting to know your users. It's about making that direct connection between the makers and the users. It's about getting into their world, seeing how they use your sites on their turf. It's about learning how to listen to what your users want, and getting past your own assumptions. There are many benefits to getting to know your users. Some are obvious and some are not so clear. If you make an effort to understand your users on every project you are involved in you will begin to be able to make design decisions that will save you time and grief down the road. Your sites will be better tailored to user wants and needs and in the long run you'll save your clients and organizations money as well as help to build a solid relationship with the people who matter most. Quite a bit of what I'm going to talk about it common sense, and really there are many directions you could go with this. The main thing is to make a commitment to get to know your users, doing something about that commitment and then following up with all the great user feedback and observations you'll have.
So, How Do I Start?The hardest part about Gorilla Usability is getting that initial contact with your users. I've worked on many projects where the Web team is working in a vacuum, with little or no contact with the users aside from Web stats logs and the occasional e-mail. Depending on the type of project you are working on you have a few options here, and I'd stress that a few users are better than none (but none can be better than one or two — more on that later), so if you can put your designs in front of family members, friends or co-workers it's better than not trying to get user feedback at all. If you are working on a redesign or project that has another related site with existing users this will be easiest. There are a few ways to get some of your users to help out and most of those are free — or really cheap. It could be as simple as posting a link on your site, or sending an e-mail to your mailing list asking for participation in user studies. Make it clear that you are doing this to help them, and let them know you need their help to make a better experience for everyone. If you have a small user base or worse, apathetic users, offer a small gift or to feed them, that seems to work well. In my experience there are always a few people who are willing to help out and share their opinions with you. These folks are usually more engaged than the "typical users" that you'd get for a formal study - and they're usually free! Another method is a simple feedback form, or survey posted on your site. This works really well for Intranets or projects with highly engaged users. It's a great way to collect some basic user data and opinions and if you make a request for volunteers you'll quickly have a user base with which to set up you studies.
We've Got Volunteers. Now What?Now comes the most tedious part. You'll need to set up appointments with your volunteers. This can be time consuming and frustrating at times, but hang in there. I've done this a few times now and it's gone fairly smoothly, I found that making sure they knew that you were going the extra mile and advocating for them seemed to help this along. You can have them come to you, or, what I'd suggest — you can go to them. Conducting the study at a user's home, desk or office will give you a greater insight into how they use your sites, and the Web in general. It'll be an extra effort on your part, but the payoff is great, believe me. You'll see things you'd have never seen in a classroom setting or at your own workstation. I recently did a study where we wanted to test a PDF form. We knew there were some problems with it, but we didn't have a handle of how people used this form on the Web. The idea was to have people fill it out online, save, print and then fax it in. Well, I went out to conduct the study at a few of our user's offices and I found out, to my complete surprise, that most of them didn't have a printer connected to the computer they used to hit the Web. They had a copy of the form and when they ran out they used the copy machine to make more. One office had only a small laptop connected directly to a DSL line. It was shared by five people, no network, no printer, nothing. And this was closer to our typical user than we'd ever dreamed. One thing to remember when setting up these studies is that if you have several people on your Web team conduct studies — which I think can be a really good idea, especially for small teams — you need to make sure that each person gets at least three users per study. If possible it would be good to do six or more. The problem with doing one or two users is that you tend to identify with those users and when it comes time to get your observations together and make a plan on improving your site you'll have a tough time seeing the big picture. Every user has particular problems, and some of these might be limited to that one user. You need to know when to let those go and take care of the issues that matter to the majority. In my experience it takes at least three users to begin to see patterns emerge.
Now Comes The Fun PartYou've got volunteers lined up, you've scheduled appointments to meet with them in their lairs, now what? You need a plan. It's Gorilla Usability, but it's still smart usability. What I like to do before I go out to conduct a study is write up a simple "to do" list for me and a simple script for the user. I put to paper what I want to tell the user and how I'd like to set up the study. I do this in a very loose manner, as these studies, unlike formal usability studies, tend to have a mind of their own and often go all over the place. That's a good thing in my mind, it keeps it interesting, makes it fun and may uncover some things about your users you might not have gotten to, but I at least try to have some semblance of order to them. The "to do" list is something like this:
- Thank the user for helping out, let them know what the study isabout, and that we are testing the site and not the user. Let themknow it's OK to make a wrong turn and that all their feedback willhelp make a better user experience.
- Ask the user what they think the site is about, or if they use itcurrently what they use it for. Ask them what they like and don'tlike and just get a general feel for how they view the site.
- Have them look at the site as a whole. Ask what they think might bein different areas of the site, or what different functions wouldbe for. Gauge their expectations and first impressions.
- Now give the users some tasks. Use a script based on some areas youwould like feedback on and some other general areas or functions.Keep the user on track if possible, but note where they deviate.Take notes, observe and encourage the user to keep talking aboutwhat they are thinking. Try to avoid coaching unless the user asksfor help.
- When the tasks are done, thank the user for their help.
- Ask the user for their general opinion and impression of the siteand the experience. Let them express how they felt while using thesite.
- End the study. Make sure you give them your contact information incase they have any more feedback.
- From the home page find Human Resources
- Now locate the cafeteria menu
- Go back to the home page
- Search for information on the president of the company
- Locate the casual Friday policy
- Submit a classified ad
- Find the holiday schedule