How Well Do You Know Your Users? / by Gavin Lau

We call ourselves user experience experts or user interface designers. Yet the amount of time we spend with users is often low.

The companies we work with say they care about making their customers lives better. But they build digital services with nothing more than an educated guess about whether it will help users. Think about it for a minute. How much time have you spent with users in the last six weeks?

How much time have you spent with users in the last six weeks?

If you call yourself a user experience professional, I would hope that you are not saying zero. But now tell me how much time your manager has spent with users? What about their manager? You see the problem. Most companies are out of touch with users needs.

At the Government Digital Service in the UK they have a rule. Stakeholders are not allowed to input into a digital service unless they have spent time with users in the last six weeks. Now that might be beyond your means to make that happen. But you can at least get to know them better yourself. You can also spend as much time as possible introducing your colleagues to their customers.

So how can you get to know your users?


Getting to know your users

We claim we don’t have time to interview users or visit them in the field. That focus groups are too expensive to arrange. But is that true? I have sat in so many meetings where a dozen or more people debate a feature or design for a digital service. Think about how many man hours we waste in those debates. It would be cheaper and easier to spend a day speaking to real customers.

Then of course there is the time and money spent building something that users don’t want or understand. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to do some card sorting or run some interviews to better understand users mental models?

But setting aside those debates, there are no shortage of tools that make talking to users cheap and easy. Something as simple as a user survey can be enlightening and getting responses via email, the web or social media is simple.

You have customers telling you about themselves all the time via social media and CS

You also have customers telling you about themselves all the time. Followers on your Facebook page are posting stacks of information about themselves everyday via social media. Then there are the customer support queries you receive. You just need to start collecting and listening to what they are saying.

The chances are you even have some valuable information on your users sitting in a desk drawer or in a CRM somewhere. Personas, reports, testimonials and more. All waiting for you to collate it together.

We shouldn’t just speak to users, we need to watch what they do

But understanding our users should be the absolute basics. It should be the beginning. Because users will say one thing and do another. We shouldn’t just be speaking to them, we should be watching what they do.


Matching intent with behavior

Once again, this doesn’t need to be the expensive or complex thing we have built it up to be.

The chances are you already have analytics running on your website. This can tell you so much about users and how they behave. You can see how they navigate through your site, what they search on, where they drop out and so much more.

But once again we convince ourselves we don’t have time. Admittedly, extracting useful lessons from analytics can be tough at times. But it is worth the fight. Also, if you can scrape together a small budget there are other options that will help you better understand user intent.

Multi-Variance testing is always enlightening. So are heat maps and session recorders (that record users moving around your site). But in the end nothing quite beats usability testing.

Invisibly watching users is interesting, but in the end, nothing quite beats usability testing

Sure, we can invisibly watch users through heat maps, session recordings and multi-variance testing. This means you don’t risk altering their behavior. But although they tell you where things are going wrong, they don’t tell you why. That is where usability testing is so great. Users can tell you exactly what they are thinking as they complete a task.

I know! You don’t have the time or money for running usability testing. But it doesn’t need to be a big deal. The kind of Guerrilla usability testing outlined by Steve Krug in his book ‘Don’t Make Me Think!’ shows it doesn’t need to take a lot. But since Steve wrote that book things have gotten even easier.

Remote usability testing tools allow you to test without ever meeting users in person

Today there are remote usability testing tools that allow you to test without ever meeting users in person. This makes the whole process so much more straightforward. Whats more, it leaves you with compelling material for showing colleagues.


Communicating user behavior

It is only once your whole organization has a good grasp of the user that real change can happen

You can understand all there is to know about your users and their behavior, but if you are the only one who knows it, then you have failed.

It is only once your whole organization has a good grasp of the user that real change can happen. In fact prominent user researcher Leisa Reichelt once said that she only spent 30% of her time doing user research. She spent the other 70% communicating her findings to colleagues.

But how exactly are you meant to engage colleagues and management in better understanding users?

Condense what you know about the user into something you can print & hang around the office

A good starting point is to condense what you know about the user into an attractive infographic. Something that you can print and hang on the walls of your office. This might take the form of some empathy maps or a customer journey map. This ensures that the user is always front and center in people’s minds every time they look up from there desks.

You can also share some of the key metrics you have gathered about user behavior. Many people find data compelling and it is difficult to ignore. But you will also find that some people are more swayed by seeing rather than by numbers.

For these people, put together short videos of users. Snippets from user interviews or remote usability testing. Clips of them expressing their frustration or stumbling over some important task.

You can also do more positive videos too. Videos that show what a difference a focus on the user experience can make. Videos of users praising your company or sailing through a previously challenging task.

Show colleagues data & videos to get them to appreciate the value of user research

All these tools are great for getting colleagues to appreciate the value of user research. But in the end we come back to where we started this article. You need to get colleagues sitting down with users.



Try running an open usability test session every month. Have a few test sessions lined up for the morning and then sit down with whoever attends over lunch to discuss the results. Bribe people to attend with a hot lunch. I always find pizza works well.

Do this on the same day every month and invite people personally. Combined with your other communication tools I can promise people will start attending. Before long you will build a small community of people in your organization dedicated to user research.