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How working with less can lead to more creative insights.
How I got there: initially, I attended a trade school for electronic technicians but then I went on to study computer science. As a newly graduated software engineer, I was desperate to gain some valuable work experience abroad. Preferably, in Silicon Valley. So, in hopes of being able to transfer later, I started applying to different local companies with US branches. I did manage to land a job but, unfortunately, that was right before the dot-com bubble and my company ended up folding before I made it across the pond.
After that, I took matters into my own hands and applied to a job posting I found online: Engineering Supervisor at Varian Medical Systems in Palo Alto. I landed the job and ended up staying for six years. I returned to Switzerland in 2008 to become Doodle’s VP of Product Management. But by that time, things had changed: for one, I had been bitten by Silicon Valley’s startup bug. Also, I was totally fascinated with the emerging field of user experience. So when my alma mater announced a new degree program in human-computer interaction design, going back to school and getting my master’s was a no-brainer – and so was founding a company to advance the user experience industry.
Switching gears a bit — what’s the best random thing you’ve found on the internet recently (preferably with links)?
I love services that you can book online and then they just come to your house. No appointments, no papers to sign, not even a phone call. Recently, for example, I discovered a local cleaning company here in Switzerland called Batmaid. All I had to do was create an account and select what I wanted:
It’s a lot like Maidsapp in the States.
Urban is another amazing service I recently stumbled upon in London. They offer everything from deep tissue to shiatsu and even couple’s massages. All you do is schedule and pay online and a masseur or masseuse shows up at your door, table in hand. I’m a big believer in meditation and relaxation so I think this is awesome, especially for people who are traveling or who don’t live close to a regular spa.
And what’s your most useless skill?
Maybe this is actually more of a habit than a skill, but here goes: when I’m driving down the road, I always look for patterns in the license plate numbers I come across. For example, I might see a license plate that reads “ELV 598” and then I’ll think about how both parts of that license plate start with a five because E is the fifth letter of the alphabet. Or I might see familiar numbers like 911 or the first couple of digits of pi or something. Interestingly enough, though, I am not at all good at remembering the patterns I find. So skill or no, it’s definitely useless.
Other than that, it might be worth mentioning that I play the clarinet, soprano sax, and alto sax. Obviously, these instruments aren’t useless per se. But I specialize in a particular type of Swiss folk music that’s almost extinct nowadays. I used to play in a band and record CDs and everything. But practicing for hours and traveling to a bunch of remote locations to play for a handful of people was taking up too much of my time. So now I only play the odd concert here and there.
Alright, let’s get into it — what is your favorite “war story” from a user research session you were involved in?
There isn’t so much one story that stands out in particular. Instead, it’s more of a recurring thing: the dog and pony show. What I mean by that is that some customers are more concerned about keeping up appearances than they are about gaining real insight from a user test. Maybe they’re going berserk because some big shot’s flying in just to witness the test, maybe it’s because they need to convince management to up their budgets. Whatever the case may be, they want a room full of test users who conform to their notions of perfection. No “weirdos” or “funny accents” allowed. I don’t like that at all. So I always tell our customers that the idea isn’t to recruit people you wish your customers were like – the idea is to recruit people they’re actually like. Besides, outliers can be a really valuable source of information.
If that doesn’t work, I always recommend they over-recruit so they can pick and choose the “right” test users for their display of smoke and mirrors. The trick is that the additional charge will usually be enough to make the customer reconsider my first piece of advice: focus on conducting real research that produces real results. If I were your stakeholder, that would impress me a lot more than some perfectly staged bullsh*t, anyway.
There has been a big surge in “design thinking” recently, how would you like to see that trend continue to evolve?
The problem with design thinking, the problem with all innovation processes actually, is that they can’t be institutionalized. But that is exactly what big companies try to do: they build colorful rooms full of Legos and sticky notes and tell their employees to go be creative in there. Sorry, but that’s not how innovation works. Innovation thrives on limited means. Instead of giving employees all the resources in the world, give them squat and see how they handle it. This is exactly why startups are so innovative. They start with nothing and they have to fight for everything.
Design thinking, like all processes, is trendy because big companies are implementing it. But they’re implementing it all wrong. So, like all trends, design thinking is doomed to die. To answer your question, though, I would like to see more big companies driving innovation the way startups do: by limiting resources and forcing employees to think outside of the box.
In what ways do you deviate from the conventional wisdom around user research?
There are two things, really. For one, I like to watch my mom use something like an app or a website. I don’t do a real test with a script, I don’t ask her questions. I just give her something and observe. Obviously, I’m not expecting any real results. But watching her is great when I need a reality check, a fresh perspective, if you will. I work with technology every day and what seems intuitive to me may not actually be all that intuitive to someone like my mom. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not about her age. It’s about the fact that she never bothered to learn how to use a computer. So she naturally missed all of the developments that make us consider certain things “intuitive.” In the 1980s, skeuomorphic design was super popular: digital things looked and worked like their real-world counterparts. For example, deleting a folder meant dragging a folder icon to a trash can icon and letting go. That’s something pretty much anyone can relate to. Compare that to how you delete an app on an iPhone today: by pressing and holding until the clickable x appears out of nowhere. The only reason we don’t struggle with that is because we use our smartphones every day and we’ve gotten used to the fact that the digital world no longer emulates the physical world.
The second way I deviate from conventional wisdom around user research is this: I test with 3 people, optimize, and then test with another 3 people. I call my approach “Nielsen right” because it combines the power of testing with Nielsen’s recommended 5 users and the speed of the RITE method. Basically, I’m testing with just enough people to gain a little bit of pattern evidence and then iterating quickly, albeit not the instant I discover a possible issue. I’m not really sticking to either of the established approaches but this happy medium has always worked well for me. Learn the rules like a pro, then break them like an artist, right?
What do you think is the biggest mistake people make when approaching user research?
The excessive and unquestioning use of quantitative research tools. Hands down. People are far too focused on convenience these days, they expect some tool to collect the data, analyze the data, and send them a pretty report. But, if you do it right, quantitative research is actually more work than qualitative research because it produces more data. Also, what do a bunch of numbers even tell you? Without additional qualitative research, you might have a result like “90% of users click on the button” but you don’t have a clue why. You don’t even know if people consciously read the label on that button. Not to mention all of the things that you’re assuming the tool got right like random sampling and confidence intervals.
I think people should spend more time observing and listening to their users and trying to understand them. It’s not that I hate all tools or that all tools are bad. It’s just that convenience shouldn’t ever be the main consideration in user research.
After years of doing user research, what is the biggest lesson you’ve learned? The type of thing you wish someone had told you about when you were getting started.
Honestly, I made so many mistakes when I was starting out. It seems silly now but when I was working at Doodle, we would do things like interview 5 test users at a time, each in a different corner of the same room. We had a fixed set of questions and we thought we were saving time. But, of course, having 5 different interviewers meant the results were open to 5 different interpretations and not at all comparable. So I guess I wish there had been resources like the ones we’re producing now. Step-by-step guides that help you choose the right methods or that explain how to make UX measurable, for example.
Let’s wrap up with some quick hits. How do you like to prep right before sitting down with a user for a research session? Any habits that you find effective?
I always thank the user for taking the time to participate and, of course, I explain that there are no wrong answers because I’m not interested in testing them, I’m interested in testing the product or service at hand. I also tell the user that they can interrupt me if they feel at all uncomfortable and that we can take a break or stop altogether whenever they want to.
Icebreakers are really important, too. Some people like to chit chat about the weather or something else that’s easy to talk about and has nothing to do with the test object. But I feel like my time is precious and so is the user’s and I don’t want to waste a second of it. So I like to warm up with some questons about the thing I’m testing. If that’s a website, for example, I’ll ask the user to just scroll up and down and tell me whatever pops into their head. They might offer up something about the layout, colors, calls to action, what have you. The cool thing is that this exercise breaks the ice and gets the user in the mindset to talk about my product or service. You might even gain some unexpected insight before the actual test has begun.
What tools do you use during sessions? For interview guides, notes, recording, prototypes, etc.
As I said before, I’m not a big fan of tools. Unless the client specifically states that they need a highlight video or something, I don’t even tape my moderated studies anymore. But, okay, two tools that are absolutely indispensable are Google Docs and Sheets. They’re free and they don’t force you to fit your data into a particular format as a specialized tool would.
Are there any tricks you use to make participants feel relaxed or more expressive during sessions?
So in the beginning, again, it’s all about making sure the participant feels comfortable and confident. They shouldn’t feel anxious or under pressure at all. If, after the ice has been broken, a participant is still having trouble relaxing and thinking out loud, I will always try to encourage them by saying something positive. Of course, I can’t say “good job” or “well done” because praise would put the focus on them rather than the test object. So instead, I will say something like: “That’s very interesting! Why do you think that? Can you tell me a little more?” The key is to always be friendly and upbeat. Your tone of voice, your facial expressions, and your body language should convey that you’re in a good mood and eager to learn from them.
How do you and your team document and share the insights you collect from user research?
We practice what we preach at TestingTime: Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Lookback is all we ever use to conduct our own research.
Speaking of TestingTime: the typical argument against user research is that it’s a lot of work. Do you yourself jump at every chance to test?
I’d like to say: “Yes, of course, all of our employees do.” But we’re only human. We would rather be lazy and just skip testing sometimes. It is a lot of work, after all. And it can be a real pain in the neck, especially when you’ve got tight deadlines to meet and you need to get stuff done fast. So while I don’t jump at every chance to test (yet), I am trying to get there. Whenever I know I need to conduct some research but I’m just not feeling it, I try to think about how happy and excited I’ll be afterwards. About all the new things I’ll have learned. It’s a lot like jogging, really. Putting your shoes on and going outside sucks. But then the endorphins start pumping through your system and you feel like you’re on top of the world.
I also make a point of establishing a testing culture: each and every one of our employees has to take part in at least one study. And the people doing creative stuff like design and marketing have to conduct some user research themselves. I don’t expect them to become experts. But they do have to show me that they’re genuinely interested in understanding our business and our customers. Also, I believe I’m doing all of our employees a real service: UX is becoming mainstream. In a couple of years, new hires in all departments will be expected to know at least what UX is and how user research benefits an organization.
Carrie Boyd is a Content Creator at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.
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