Jared Spool stated that the easiest way to to achieve a dramatic improvement in your user experience was to increase your team's hours of exposure to real users. Based on his observations, he recommended that everybody in the product team should have frequent exposure to users, a minimum of 2 hours every 6 weeks. These repeated interactions develop a shared understanding of real user problems and can shorten the feedback loops in design and development processes.
More Than Just the Minimum
However, why should we strive for just the minimum? By combining multiple methods and channels for user research, I believe a product team would benefit from at least 1 session with a user each week.
If you’re working on new concepts, you can increase this cadence as much as necessary. During one of our product design phases at The Advisory Board Company, we would sometimes have sessions with users twice a day for rapid product design iterations.
Getting Everybody Involved with User Research
Increasing the number of interactions with your users gives you more opportunities to get developers, quality-assurance, product managers, and other stakeholders involved. Getting these different perspectives and disciplines involved in research gives everybody on the product team a chance to provide unique solutions to user problems.
Since we’re developing a shared understanding, designers then don’t need to create detailed research reports that nobody reads, or get into heated disagreements with those who didn’t share in these user interactions. The entire process becomes more user-centered and less opinion-driven.
On-site user shadowing is often the most eye-opening and enlightening experiences that a product team can have. It’s an incredible experience to meet your users face-to-face and see how they use your product in their own natural environment. It gives your team an opportunity to better understand your users workflow with your application as well as any possible work-arounds that they be doing outside of your application.
Every on-site session that I’ve ever been a part of has created dozens of quick fixes and enhancements and inspired new product opportunities. The team gets energized and it often puts roadmap priorities into perspective. Most sessions that I’ve been a part of haven’t had users clamoring for massive redesigns or innovative new features, but often subtle fixes for some existing workflow.
The only drawback to user shadowing sessions is that it does take more time to coordinate and plan. Depending on where your users are at, travel may make this a more expensive option. It’s definitely worth the cost, but it may be difficult to do enough sessions to create enough exposure opportunities for your team.
Remote sessions are a great way to augment on-site sessions. While you may lack all of the context that an on-site would provide, these remote sessions are typically much easier to setup and less of a commitment from both your team as well as for your users.
With screen sharing software like GoToMeeting or others, it’s easy to demo new concepts and designs, do remote usability tests, or just interview users about their workflow and any issues they may be having. These sessions are easy to scale with multiple members of your team joining in at once.
Watch Your Users with Analytics Tools
It’s now possible with certain tools like FullStory, to watch users actually using your web service with session replays. Users will tend to modify their behavior when being shadowed, so complementing your on-site sessions with a service like this can provide for a more complete picture.
Participate With / Shadow Your Support Team
Some companies like Zapier have everybody, including executives, pitch in on customer support. It’s a great way to learn directly from customers, especially about their pain points with your software, but it does require a commitment to training and changing internal processes. If you can’t commit fully to this approach, even scheduling some time to shadow your support co-workers can still provide valuable insights.
Make Your User Research Schedule Public
Make it easy for others to join your user research sessions, no matter which channel or method that you’re using. Post an updated schedule in a shared working area or online and allow people to sign up for times that are convenient for them. Whenever possible, share what you’ve learned in your team standups or meetings to keep everybody involved and thinking about your users.
Exposure Hours Drive UX Innovation - Jared Spool
Fast Path to a Great UX – Increased Exposure Hours - Jared Spool
Time with Users: Set Personal and Company Goals - Jakob Nielsen
All Hands Support: Why Everyone–Even Executives–Should Spend Time in Customer Service - Wade Foster