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Making the case for visiting your users

Author: Natalie Vanns

User research has put me in various situations over the years, from dropping 1,320 meters below ground level to interview miners in Sweden’s deepest mine, to sharing an amazing Indian meal which a participant cooked for our team.

I’ve seen extreme ends of the spectrum, visiting people with wealth I could never imagine having, to visiting people going through really challenging times and major life changes. All of this builds empathy and understanding for the people I’m designing for.

As a human-centered designer with an industrial design background, visiting people in their own environment is second nature to me. It just makes sense to see the world your design will have to fit into, right?

So I’m surprised when visiting users in context is skipped when it could offer valuable insight, and methods of gaining inspiration from their everyday life are missed.

There are good reasons for not doing contextual visits, particularly in fast-paced agile projects where seeing more participants in one place is a big time saver. It also offers more control over the environment itself, if you need to record interactions with a prototype for example. And sometimes, depending on the stage of the project, or use case of the product, it just isn’t crucial to visit someone in context, and that’s fine.

But it’s important to stop and consider what you might be missing out on, and make a conscious choice based on the needs of the project at that point in time.

We get used to the normality of our own lives, so it can be easy to forget just how different other people’s lives and needs can be- and they can be vastly different. That’s why it’s important to get out of the office, and visit people in context.

Research doesn’t have to be done in a research lab, and I’d argue that you could be missing out by not visiting participants in a more natural setting. Here’s why:

The value of research in context

1. You reveal unmet needs

You can learn a lot from visiting someone in their own space. It gives designers and researchers the opportunity to spot unmet needs and workarounds that the user may have become used to, and might not think to mention.

When my colleague Sam visited a mechanic’s garage for a project for the DVSA’s new MOT system, he saw how grubby some of the computers and keyboards could be, getting covered in oil and grease. To remedy this, they had put the keyboard inside a clear plastic bag. The frequently used letters still got covered in oil to the point you couldn’t read them, but at least the keyboard worked.

The Caps Lock light was drowned out behind layers of dirt, making it difficult to sign in, not knowing which case the password was being typed in. Filling in that online form is going to be a bit trickier than it is for me on my shiny Macbook then! In hindsight it sounds obvious, but it’s a reminder that you don’t know what you don’t know, until you see it for yourself.

2. You build empathy

On top of this, these visits build empathy. You get to know your participants more as people. What does their space say about their lifestyle and needs? How might your design fit into their life and the products they already own?

Coupling these observations with what they tell you gives you a richer backdrop to who they are. By interviewing a range of different people, from mainstream to extreme, you’ll see where different needs lie for different types of people, and where your product might fit in that landscape.

All of this is useful not only for building your own empathy and understanding, but it’s also a practical starting point for upcoming exercises like making personas.

3. It’s a more natural setting for the participant

Visiting participants on their own turf is often a more relaxing setting for them than being in a two-way mirrored room. Totally understandable, I’d wonder what was going on behind that mirror too! At home, they might feel more comfortable to open up.

There’s things you can do to make a home visit as comfortable for them as possible too, like emailing bio’s over in advance so they know who is coming, and limiting your team size to a maximum of three. If people are more relaxed, you can get to know them better as people, and that’s where the real needs and insights lie.

It’s particularly important to think about the environment when talking about sensitive or emotive issues. In a previous role researching the design of a breast pump, we decided to let participants test them in their own homes instead of travelling to a space we set up.

Stress hormones are like kryptonite to oxytocin, the hormone responsible for milk production. In this scenario, the environment for the testing could have a real impact on the results.

Being at home also allowed the participant to test the product as if they owned it. Where did they choose to use it? What did they do whilst they were using it? Where do they store it whilst not in use? All valuable information we were able to gain as early in the project as possible. Testing in a controlled location might have been more convenient, but the findings wouldn’t have been as insightful.

When research in context is particularly valuable

One of the most fruitful times for visiting people in context is during the initial research or discovery phase. You’re naturally going wide and exploring the space to define the problem and direction the project will go in. Gathering as much information at this point can reveal new (and future) opportunities, even beyond the scope of the initial project.

Options when a visit isn’t physically possible

If contextual or home visits are not possible, you could consider the following ways to get an insight and build empathy into your participant’s everyday life:

  • Homework tasks – Asking the participant to take relevant photos ahead of time and discussing these at a one-to-one session is a good way of getting a window into their everyday life and environment, without needing to be in context
  • Diary studies – Diary entries can take the form of photos, video, audio files, or written responses to questions, prompts and tasks. They are a useful way of seeing snippets from a participant’s everyday life over a period of time. Doing this in a day-in-the-life format is a useful way to get a picture of their routine and environments too
  • Contextual video call – Video call can be a powerful way of connecting with someone remotely, as you’re still able to pick up on their expressions and body language. It also offers the chance for them to share products or spaces in their own environment which might come up in conversation

Next time you have the opportunity to carry out user research, think about what opportunities visiting your participants will give you. How might you get to know them more as people by gaining insight from their everyday environment?

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