User Research: You ≠ Your User

Valentine’s Day. Literally, no one can escape it. 90% of the earth turns into the impulse aisle of chocolates and five-foot teddy bears.

With all that noise, how do you know what that special someone really needs?

In my work as a User Researcher, it’s a question I occasionally get from my clients. Not in regards to their personal lives, but about the needs of the users of their website. My clients often say to me that as internal users of their own website, they have a pretty good idea about what their users need.

It is quite a passionate relationship to navigate (to say the least). Every project comes with internal stakeholders—people with an interest in the business—that are well-intentioned and entirely invested in the website. Most organizations have multiple departments, and thus, many internal stakeholders. This leads to numerous differing opinions, priorities, and needs. Generally, this is an internal prioritization nightmare, and it’s the website users who suffer.

This mentality of stakeholders aligning themselves with their website’s users has put me in a state of dismay upon occasion. So, I’d like to outline how I’ve helped stakeholders break up with the idea of “I am a user of the product, too!”

“I-am-a-user” thinking is usually exposed when someone close to the website suggests user feedback as a way to make better decisions. Multiple projects I’ve worked on have come to abrupt halts, killing momentum from common arguments like:

“But everyone is our user! Including us at the organization!” (The first twist of the knife.)

I’ve never had that problem!” (My heart!)  

“They just don’t understand the way the website is supposed to be used!”(RIP, me.)

So, what can you do?

First, have empathy because “breaking up is hard to do.”

Changing minds and getting people to see beyond their assumptions and learned behaviors is hard stuff, and forcing someone to break up with their ideas by strong-arming them just doesn’t work. So, it’s important to understand where their assumptions have come from and what their goals are moving forward. And to do this in your own organization, you’ll need to align internal stakeholder priorities.

We’ve seen that people with different roles often have varying opinions about similar things, which sometimes go unspoken, but play a big role in how things move forward and are decided.  Often being revealed mid-project and forcing a halt in the process or worse forcing a shift in priorities destroying all the work previously done. Finding out where priorities are aligned and potentially misaligned helps negate the idea that “my voice is representative of a user, therefore, my opinion is more justified than yours!”

Reviewing all perspectives allows teams a complete view on how and where to move forward prior to deciding where and what resources to exhaust. Aligning priorities humanizes and throws it all out there for teams to see where they’re all coming from. You can do your own stakeholder interviews by following our proven methodology!

(Or, if you’d like help getting team alignment, we can do that for you!)

Next – and I cannot stress how valuable this step is – talk to actual users! This is one of my favorite things to do.

If a stakeholder thinks they already know what their users need, it can be really effective to present that stakeholder with feedback from actual users, which will likely be very different than their assumptions. There are a variety of ways to do this with both qualitative and quantitative research methods.

Some organizations already have a general sense of who their users are, using tools like personas. These visual tools remind internal teams that they’re unlike target users simply based on differing goals and motivations.

For an even stronger user profile than a persona, conduct a workshop with multiple internal stakeholders to map their understanding of current users’ mental models. Once completed for current users, repeat the mental model mapping for new users entering the website for the first time.

By thinking through the steps a user must take to find a desired result, you’re drawing commonalities and highlighting structural problems. These issues can be as diverse as multiple paths to the same thing, inefficient language, or dead ends. Asking internal stakeholders to think outside the box can help them realize their own curse of knowledge. And this realization can move them away from the belief that they already know what their users need.

I guarantee you, no single internal stakeholder uses their website in every possible way.

Any of these techniques can help an organization decide where and how to validate or reject their own perceptions of users’ needs. They show teams that the way they move through the website excludes entire segments of current and potential users.

You’ve read to this point and learned about how to deal with a stakeholder, potentially because you’re about to be (or already are) in a frustrating situation. The biggest takeaway I hope to have provided is that you can find solutions that will positively affect user experience, overall usability, the organization, internal stakeholders you’re working with, and, most importantly, yourself.

In situations where you butt heads with a colleague because of a misperception, the bigger picture is, you’re both on the same team. Review the end goal and look to human-centered solutions, all while keeping in mind that you have a responsibility to listen to the user before you assume what they need.

It’s a pretty good rule for relationships too! Because making a major decision for someone based on your perception instead of an actual understanding of their needs and feelings never works out well.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

– Paige


P.S. Tim, please never buy me a five-foot teddy bear.