The first tenet of user experience is to know thy user

Like many things in user experience, this tenet is hardly rocket science: it's self evident that a design tailored to the needs, capabilities and goals of a specific user group will be both easier to use and more engaging than a design that's aimed at everyone.

Few designers or developers would argue against this tenet, yet a relatively small percentage actually do the field work to find out about their users. I think there are a few reasons for this.

  • Some design teams think they know the product space well enough that they can predict user behaviour. The truth is that these predictions are assumptions, some of which are right but many of which are wrong. Waiting until release to find out which assumptions are wrong is simply delaying the inevitable and a surefire way to increase the risk of failure.
  • Other design teams think that 'user research' is simply about asking people what they want. In fact, users can rarely articulate their requirements in ways that can usefully drive design. Implementing what users say they want is another surefire way to increase the risk of failure.
  • Some design teams want to do user research but can't persuade management to give them the time or funding required to do it. For example, a recent field research project for one of our clients took place over several weeks and involved 35 face-to-face observations in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Halifax, Newport and Bristol with a further 14 telephone interviews with users and stakeholders. This is hardly something you can do in your lunch hour.

The gold standard

Let's begin by looking at the gold standard for field visits: methods like contextual inquiry and ethnography. The reason these methods are so prized is because you, as a researcher, get to sit with your users and understand their daily activities in context.

Why is context so important? Here's a story I heard this week from a colleague. She was visiting a database administrator in his office to find out how he did his job. While there, she noticed that he used multiple monitors. On one monitor, running full screen, was software produced by a competitor. The screen was quite complex and showed various graphs and real-time information relating to his job, but she noticed that during the observation he hardly seemed to look at it.

She gestured to the screen and asked, 'Can you tell me a little how you use this product?'

'Oh, this,' he responded a bit dismissively. 'That screen is just to impress my boss.'

This makes the point that work takes place within a social context, where people walk past desks and cubicles and sometimes judge your value by how busy you look. Contextual insights like these can make the difference between a design that sells and a design that fails, and that's why you really want to get out of the building and sit with your users.

Under the radar alternatives to field research

But what if you can't do field visits? What are the quick, low-cost or no-cost alternatives to contextual inquiry and ethnography?

Browse online discussions

Look at the questions and comments posted in your company's support forums and see if you can detect any patterns. Can you identify a common set of goals across users? Does it look like there are different groups of users with different kinds of goals? Are there parts of the system or product that people frequently struggle with or complain about?

Diary Study

Do you know a few users (or potential users) who you can contact by email? If so, give them a private link to a blog where they can record their thoughts, experiences and impressions about the domain you're designing for. Send them a reminder email or a text message at the same time every day as a prompt to complete the blog. For more ideas on how you can use this kind of approach, take a look at Dscout: this is a paid service but it's simple to emulate many features of it for free.

Critical incidents

Ask users to write down what they were doing 5 minutes before and 5 minutes after a critical incident, for example launching a particular application, visiting a particular web site or dealing with a particular problem. This gives you insights into what triggers user behaviour and what users do next.


Ask potential customers to use their camera phone to photo-document a workday or leisure day and get them to upload their images to Flickr or a tumblr. For example, one client of ours who runs a chain of clothing stores recently asked young women to photograph a typical week-end shopping expedition. The photographs that were taken included images of the clothes but also included images of their friends mugging for the camera, pictures showing what they had for lunch and pictures of storefronts and the shopping mall itself. Many of these images emphasised the social context of shopping. This approach can give great insights into what matters from your customer's perspective and help generate design ideas for meeting those needs.

Remote desktop

If your product is screen-based, contact a few users and ask to set up screen sharing using a free service like Skype or a paid service like GoToMeeting. Ask users to share their screen with you and give you a tour of their desktop. Ask them about the common tasks they carry out and ask them to demonstrate how they do those tasks. If they have a web cam, see if you can get them to detach it and give you a brief view of the office or home environment.

Act like a mystery shopper

Identify the customer-facing channels in your organisation like telephone ordering lines, support lines or retail stores. Pretend that you're a customer and see how you're dealt with. For example, phone your company's support lines and see how your issue is handled. What are the key areas of improvement?

Pretend you're not looking

If your company has a physical presence such as a retail store, walk in and watch the way customers handle the product or talk about it. What features do they mention? How do they talk about it being used? What other products do they compare it against? For extra points, engage customers in conversation: tell them that you're interested in this product too and ask them what they see as the strengths and weaknesses.

No excuses

When answering the question, 'Why don't we do more user research?', it's easy to blame a lack of management support. Instead, empower yourself and try one or more of these skunkworks, under the radar techniques. All you have to lose is your preconceptions about users.

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 discount usability, ethnography.

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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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