Last month, I was speaking with a senior manager in a major multinational who was committed to making user experience happen within her organisation. She had given everyone in the development team a copy of the Fable of the User Centred Designer. She had organised roadshows with developers in her organisation. She had made it clear that, from now on, the first step in any design effort would be for developers to engage with users.

But then she hit a roadblock.

Some developers said to her, “I want to speak to my users but they don’t want to speak to me”.

She heard her developers say that users are too busy to take part in site visits — that users aren’t interested in being involved in design — that users just want something that works.

All or nothing thinking

Psychologists who work with people who are depressed often talk about a cognitive distortion called “all or nothing thinking”. It’s a situation where people think of the world in black-and-white and don’t acknowledge any shades of grey. Even if you’re not clinically depressed, it’s a mode of thinking that most of us fall into at one time or another. Here’s a common one that you often hear at this time of year: “There’s no point me starting an exercise plan: I’m useless with routines”.

Psychologists deal with this through questioning. “Really? You’ve never managed to follow a routine?” They then go on to show evidence to the contrary, for example: “Do you have a regular bedtime or a regular time you get up?”

With design and development teams, all or nothing thinking is the refuge of procrastinators. So if you hear a comment like “My users don’t want to speak with me”, make like a psychologist and question the assertion. “Really? Are you saying there’s not a single one of our users who wants to talk to you about the design?”

This is usually enough to get the first site visit in place. And often, that’s all you need. Once you’ve made one visit, you can ask the user to refer you to someone else who’s in a similar situation. Then get that person to refer you to a couple of other people, and so on.

But what if you still get resistance? “Our users are brain surgeons and much too busy to meet with us!” Here are 9 additional tips for getting to your users.

Offer an incentive

When you saw “incentive”, you probably thought money. Indeed, money often works. But if your users are fund managers, it’s unlikely your budget will stretch to the kind of cash payment that will incentivise them. But in fact it doesn’t need to be money. On one project I worked on a few years ago (the redesign of an airline’s first class cabin) we found that we could get users to attend by offering them a voucher for an “experience” (like a day driving a racing car). This doesn’t cost much more than a standard incentive but it often appears a lot more valuable. Similarly, on other projects, just the offer of free food, drink, t-shirts or coffee mugs has been sufficient to get people to take part.

Time your intervention

Like anyone else, users have busy periods and quieter periods. A surgeon in the midst of an operation, a bond trader in the hour before the markets close and a firefighter on the way to a forest blaze — these are all bad times to expect users to engage in your research. But surgeons take lunch, markets close and firefighters have down time when on call, so suggest these times to your users. (By the way, as your users get to know you, aim to observe them during their busy periods too: just remember to act like a fly on the wall).

Tell people they are designing the future

People often find it compelling to hear that their views will make a contribution to design. So telling people that your new system will define the industry in the next few years, and this is their way of tailoring it, can often be irresistible. At the very least, by getting involved, they get the opportunity to have early sight of what’s coming.

Make it clear this isn’t a focus group

People are often jaded about attending group sessions, so make it clear you actually want to engage them in using and exploring the system, product or work domain. In the past, I’ve seen participants arrive for a session expecting to walk into a room with a group around a table, and their commitment seems to change (for the better) when they see it’s their unique input we’re looking for.

Press their hot button

If you want to engage busy users, you need to make sure they appreciate how you will help them. Do some industry research and find out the key issues amongst this group of users or in this marketplace. What are the greatest problems faced by your users or the most important goals they want to achieve? Press these buttons and you’ll find they open doors.

Make it exclusive

A sad truth about human nature is that we tend to want things more when they are in short supply. So tell your users that involvement is by invitation only and that they have been nominated to take part.

Win over an influential user

In most communities — whether it’s a profession, an organisation or a small department in an office building — there are a small number of people whose opinion carries a lot of weight. Make it your job to identify these key influencers and spend some time bringing them on board. Once these people begin to act as an advocate for you then much of the hard work has been done.

Just get in amongst them

Another approach is to trust serendipity: go where your users hang out and introduce yourself. You don’t need to do any hardcore selling. Simply tell people that you want to do research with people like them and ask them to suggest a good way to make contact with people. At this point they will often volunteer themselves or someone else.

Pay for a recruiter

If you really, really can’t face this yourself then there are people that will do this for you. Confusingly called “recruiters” (though not the same as a job recruitment agency), these people tend to know thousands of people in a variety of walks of life and, for a fee, will get you just the people you need.

Next steps

If your organisation is in the early stages of a user experience initiative, it’s likely that users haven’t been consulted much in the past. So you’ll find many obstacles in your way as you begin to involve users. Try out some of these suggestions and let us know how you get on in the comments.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher. If you like his articles, you might enjoy his free online user experience course.

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This article is tagged iterative design, strategy, usability testing.

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David Travis Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher.

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