Understanding User Needs

Do we really know what our patrons are thinking while they use our services and resources? Really really? We may not, especially if we keep our empathy for them framed in our own experience, according to Indi Young, author of Mental Models and Practical Empathy, co-founder of user-experience design firm Adaptive Path, and Internet Librarian 2016 keynote speaker.
Young pointed out that putting yourself in a patron’s place, or walking a mile in their shoes, etc., in order to understand what they’re experiencing, is not sufficient because we’re conflating their experience with ours. It’s still us, even when we have their shoes on, and our background, our motivation, our obstacles – are not theirs. “Our research methodologies are too often constrained by the organization we belong to and the tools we have available,” she said. Time to give those shoes back, stop walking, and start listening.
Her process is based on active listening, which she likened to taking a guided tour. Once the tour starts, Young said, you don’t interrupt the tour guide to ask about things not included in the tour (clearly, Young hasn’t seen me taking a tour!). Instead, you let the story unfold, you don’t change the subject, and any questions you ask should be prompted by what’s said and not by what you hope to learn.
Practical steps include:
  • Decide which segment of your audience you want to address
  • Consider using phones to conduct interviews to prevent appearance-based assumptions
  • Don’t be embarrassed by what you don’t know
  • Establish a rapport to unlock any filters the patron might bring to the interview
  • Ground the interview – what were they trying to do, how did they approach the problem, etc.
  • Write clear and thorough summaries after each interview
  • Spend about 10 times the interview time analyzing each interview
Ultimately, the goal is to learn their inner voice rather than their opinion.
Young also advised putting thought into how results are reported. “Why do we tend to use arbitrary, irrelevant categories, like age and gender, to breakdown statistics?” she asked. Better to look for patterns during analysis to help reveal meaningful correlation, if not causation.
She also warned about inserting such processes into the project cycle. Better to develop a separate “problem cycle” every five years or so to inform future project development.
Adaptive Path is currently the exclusive user experience consulting firm for CapitolOne, but their adaptivepath.org website offers tools, information and ideas to communities seeking to transform via design, and the company does regular pro bono work with “socially conscious groups.”
– Jeff Schneidewind

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