By Sheba Najmi (Participant, Founder Labs)
In Part 1, I had touched on various challenges that beset qualitative user research… which brings me to some how-to’s and good practices to help with most customer research.

11 tips for getting the most out of your customer research:

  1. Define your goal thoughtfully. First off, it’s important to be clear on what your goal is for any user research at hand. If you’re a typical aspiring entrepreneur, you likely have a hypothesis in mind about you hitting upon a potentially game-changing solution to some problem. But if your goal is simply to rouse potential customers to show enthusiasm for your idea, be aware that unless you’re pitching a ludicrous alien tracking geo-locator for the developing world, you’ll likely achieve it. That’s because the very goal sets up subsconscious behavior and leading questions on your part that induce the customers to echo your contagious enthusiasm.A much more valuable goal is to put aside your product at the outset and understand the user’s regular needs and behaviors in order to learn if they have a real pain point that your solution could alleviate. Often when I do customer research, my goal tends to be to learn where my product fails or why customers don’t find it useful. I find that such an objective frequently leads to far more valuable information –- and ultimately, a better product –- than just validated enthusiasm for my solution.
  2. Gently get your user ready for the onslaught of research questions you’re on the verge of unleashing. Since customer discovery is an art, you have to tap into your empathy skills to avoid bombarding your customer with personal questions at the outset. You also have to gauge when the user is ready for you to whip out that prototype versus when you need to invest a bit more time chatting about the virtues of super-connectivity with your customer who happens to be a physicist (indeed, I learned a lot about super conductors last week).
  3. Develop true empathy, an actual skill. Empathy is a specific subset of social skills. It’s the subset that really cares about what the user is thinking and feeling. Not the kind that’s focused on what you want to say or impress upon the customer. This skillset requires sensitivity to the non-verbalized needs of others. It entails picking up on every ounce of the user’s body language, reading between the lines as to what they truly intend to say but can’t bring themselves to voice, and both interpreting and being able to later articulate to your team the intention behind every deliberate or misguided swipe of the iPhone by the user. To cultivate empathy, you need to genuinely like your target user.
  4. Watch every instinctive interaction. You don’t need to be conducting a usability test during customer discovery. Nevertheless, instead of showing customers how your product works, explain to them at a high level what the product is about and use the opportunity to observe, even if for just a split second, how they tend to interact with the product naturally before you jump in to show them how it’s supposed to work. You might discover some patterns in users’ instinctive expectations that could inform your design.
  5. Be prepared to get at your answers creatively. You may have to be enterprising to figure out the answers rather than ask directly. For instance, if it’s clear that while Nana loves talking about her high school days, it would just not be appropriate to ask her age, you could artfully inquire, “Gosh, did you really do the jitterbug at your high school dance? That was huge in the ’30s, right -– what year was that?”
  6. Try to soothe your research participant. When talking to users, remember two important psychological factors that come into play:
    • People often feel stupid around technology
    • Most people want to look impressive and be perceived as smart

    If you have the empathy skill down, you’re attuned to the subtle signals your users emit. You can then pick up on their fear of embarrassment in front of a clearly hip, tech-savvy stranger (you!) who they perceive is testing them with unfamiliar technology.

    At Yahoo!, I both ran and witnessed numerous usability studies in which participants laughed forcedly in nervous embarrassment or apologized when something didn’t proceed as they expected. Upon encountering an intractable situation where the technology had the better of them, their shoulders slumped in resignation, indicating the unhappy defeat of their egos.

    You don’t want your participants feeling like the joke is on them. The key is to help them realize that any unexpected technical behavior or “mistake” is not their fault, it’s the technology’s. When I ran research studies in the lab, I would emphasize that in several different paraphrasings at the outset of the study.

  7. Avoid the 3 specific types of questions that usability guru JaredSpool recommends eschewing:
    • Don’t ask about the future. When asked about a future scenario, many people will answer what they’d like as their ideal behavior. They want to think they’ll behave in the most logical, effective manner. Yet, in the thick of the situation, people aren’t always so logical. They don’t do what’s ideal. We want to predict future behaviors, so we can make designs that service them. Yet just asking participants may not get the actual answer.
    • Ask participants about what they’ve done in the past. Instead of asking, “Do you think you might need to store messages in different folders?”, I’ve found it better to ask, “When you’re done with messages, what do you do with them?”
    • Don’t ask how they’d design a feature. “What would be the right way to organize the menu options?”, “What other fields should we include on this form?” etc. The best way is to just ask the participant what that design should be, right? Wrong. Users aren’t designers. If they were, they wouldn’t need us. They don’t know how to deal with constraints. They haven’t really thought the problem through.
    • Don’t ask by providing their reason. “Is the reason you don’t click this button because it’s really hard to see?” This is a tough one for many observers. We’re watching the participant and they aren’t doing what we know to be the optimal method. Our brain races with possible reasons. Need to find out. Must ask. “Why didn’t you click this button?” is only a hair better. It doesn’t telegraph the reasons we’re hypothesizing, but it implies the person has done something wrong. They’ll tell you a reason, but it may be more because you’ve pointed it out, not because it’s what they were actually thinking. Be creative about exploring the participant’s understanding of the interface. For example, when I’m curious about why they didn’t click a particular button, I ask them to talk about what each button does. That way, I learn their overall understanding of the buttons.
  8. Be mindful that people want to be nice. Whether or not they mean it, it’s easier for them to stretch the truth and avoid hurting your feelings than it is for them to tell you they’d likely never use your invention. Be careful not to ask leading questions like, “Was this a helpful experience?” Chances are you’ll hear “Sure.” And if you hear that, then you’ve got to be good at reading their body language and detecting their facial consternation as they tell you what they think you want to hear. If you really want to ask that question, one quick and less leading paraphrasing might be, “Was this a helpful or not-so-helpful experience?” and then inquire, “Why?” so you can understand what caused it to be fruitful or useless for the customer.
  9. Another trick I frequently employ is to tell users upfront that I’m not the designer (whether or not that’s true –- yes, sometimes little fibs are okay), so they needn’t worry about hurting my feelings with their feedback. That I’m really looking for their honest feedback so as to improve the product for them.
  10. Watch for the following kinds of subtle customer feedback:
    • When the user does something unexpected
    • Verbal or non-verbal indicators of surprise (either positive or negative)
    • How much of the product the user explores (or doesn’t explore)
    • Whether or not the user makes any errors and whether or not they can recover
    • The number of positive statements versus the number of critical statements the user makes of their own accord
    • Any delay or hesitation in answering a question related to their assessment of the product
  11. Make sure to thank the user for every item of feedback. People like knowing they didn’t waste their or your time. Research participants want to know that their input was of help, but are too unsure to ask. Always reiterate that their feedback was very valuable and that you learned a lot.
  12. Cover the possibility of follow up. Making people feel that their feedback was valuable will also go in your favor if you want to follow up in the future or if you want them to point you to other potential participants. At the end, make it a habit to ask if it would be okay to follow up with them or to contact their friends. You never know when you might need to do so.
    As Jared Spool says, “When conducting user research, the most valuable moments are limited times that the team spends with each participant. It’s important to make every second count.”

    I hope this post can help you get more value out of your time with customers.

    Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

    This post was originally posted at Founder Labs’ blog.

    About the guest blogger: Sheba Najmi is a user experience designer who comes with a dose of product management. She learned how humans and computers “think” by earning BS and MS degrees in Symbolic Systems (Cognitive Science, Human-Computer Interaction) at Stanford University. She has since learned a lot more during 6½ years designing for Yahoo! Mail’s 262 million users and especially as Design Lead for Yahoo! Mail Classic for 4 of those years. Follow her on Twitter at @snajmi.