User research is a bit like Fight Club.

The first rule of Fight Club: You don’t talk about Fight Club. And the first rule of user research: You don’t ask them what they want.

Research is like the gift that keeps on giving. Talking is free (See – you’re winning already). Interviews always generate way more data than you ever really bargained for, and you only really need to talk to a handful of people in order to get good insight.

User research takes practice. And some brain power. But good interviewing can give you the answers you need.

When you interview someone avoid asking what they want at all costs. Asking the user what they want will provide you with duff insight. You won’t discover the root cause of a problem, but rather what the user perceives as their ideal solution to their problem.

When you ask a user what they want, you allow them to think within the realms of possibility. And that can make user research way harder than it should be.

If you’re trying to create a new product or an experience that doesn’t yet exist, you’ll want to know what’s stopping people from doing what they want with the tools that they currently have. Only when you understand what is hampering them can you design an entirely new experience or an incremental improvement to an existing experience that helps them get the job done.

I spend a lot of my time talking to users in order to solve problems. And there are three questions that I always ask:

  1. What do you want to do?
  2. How do you do this?
  3. How could we make this better?

Question 1. What do you want to do?
Gathering context is important and it can take time. You’ll need to dig a bit. You’ll likely need to ask ‘Why?’ a lot to make sure that you really understand not only the use case, but the root cause too. Only then will you be able to decide whether a customer need can be solved by a change in process or whether you need to focus money, time and energy on developing a new feature.

Question 2. How do you do this?
Once you know the scale you need to know how the user currently deals with the problem. This is where you take a walk in their shoes and experience the pain. If you understand the workflow then you can identify where you can reduce the pain.

Question 3. How could we make this better?
Here comes the science bit. (And this is where you cheat a little…) Before you utter the words ‘How could we make this better?’ you need to get your user to explain what frustrates them most about the way they have to do things right now.

This insight is a double whammy: 1) The user defines what areas need the most help / love, and 2) The user helps to validate or disprove any hypothesis to date.

If you wade straight in and ask the user how they think something can be made better, then you’ll simply get their opinion, and you will miss out on how they actually deal with the problem.

This is where you’ll unearth those opportunities for improvement or where the user will vent about the current solution and tell you exactly what’s missing. And this is where you answer your own question – how could we make it better? Which leaves you with a decision – is the challenge something that would / could / should be solved, or is the challenge something that can be dismissed so you can move on to another hypothesis?

Remember the golden rule of user research – never ever ask a user what they want.  As Mr. Jobs once said “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” But they do know what frustrates them…


Written by Melanie Harrison

Mel is MD at Goodman Fox. Since the heady days of AltaVista and Freeserve Mel has been leading large, diverse and virtual cross-functional teams in order to engage and inform users.

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