Brave New User

1st May 2019

What’s next, moving on to the new thing, we’re doing this differently now and we don’t do that anymore, are you still doing it that way, have you not heard that this is what needs to be done now? Read this article and go to this conference and change everything.

That’s a little bit how it can feel sometimes when I read through posts and emails in my work world. Everyone is striving to think and do more; innovate and differentiate. Which is important if you’re a business and need to build and grow, it’s true. Though I’ve been reflecting on this recently.

There are many ways to research people in terms of what they do, feel and think and there are equally many compromises that need to be made and understood in all approaches, in order to get the most accurate overall result. Should you utilise a passive, ethnographic approach (and let the respondent dictate the narrative?) or should you hothouse strangers in a focus group and actively drive the agenda to spark new ideas or concepts (an artificial scenario, not reflected in Real Life?). There are many approaches that fall in between these two extremes and these are usually dependent on the business or political issue that needs to be understood.

There can often be a desire to discover a newer, more authentic, effective way to mine the rich seam of human experience and this has led to the wonderful array of techniques available to the qualitative researcher today. What is understood by researchers, however, is that each approach is just that; an approach. A device that you can use to consider how to get a person to honestly reveal their motivations and needs to you; to capture an unconscious behaviour or need, so that a client can utilise this understanding. Techniques and approaches can sometimes feel very ‘now’ and can subsequently make other approaches seem terribly old and static.
As though the tried and tested are redundant in the march of innovation. But I’m a believer in the Thai Same Same,but Different attitude when it comes to ensuring research is robust but also relevant.

I have always been interested in exploring how research can evolve to reflect changing lives and contexts. Different sectors have always pushed the approaches that mined the greatest results for their needs and I love conducting deliberative workshops for complex decision making on political or policy projects as much as I enjoy a revealing and personal account written on a private blog about a ‘taboo’ subject for an FMCG brand. So, I decided to develop my understanding of the world of User Research as it continues to expand in influence.

It sounds a bit odd but trying to explain User Research, to qualitative and quantitative researchers, felt like it was a bit of a struggle. I have often thought that I’m being incredibly inarticulate in my attempts. This, to me, is the essential point to understand about User Research. It’s qualitative research but implanted into a different ‘working environment’, rather than being a different type of research per se. User Research was formed by software developers such as Steve Jobs, who understood that no matter how fantastic the capabilities of his new products were, there was absolutely nothing to celebrate unless the user of these products was the primary consideration and could actually use them…So, why develop a phone navigation system that is confusing and complex if the actual user of the phone can’t remember how to change their settings or how to look up their contacts, much less type a text? Technology now often describes how it is ‘user centred’ and intuitive navigation has made our lives easier as we increasingly live online. So, I explain User Research as research that discovers and explores the needs of potential users (usually of a service, often online) in order to inform the best way for them to experience the service and attain the desired outcome.
Filling in an application form, buying a new outfit, organising money, browsing a holiday or finding out how to contact someone are all things that we do, privately and online. The User Researcher is talking to people, analysing needs and behaviours (same same) but is then sharing this information with software developers, user experience web designers, business analysists, service designers and product owners to build something that is fully responsive to that user’s needs. This close liaison with multi-disciplinary teams is the ‘different’ element of UR. Also, people are called ‘users’. They are actively doing something; engaging with something and this activity is the driving force. It is the user who dictates the subsequent outcome of the product or service – as opposed to a brand or product perhaps ‘creating’ an unmet need or aspiration (arising from consumer insights) to convince them to buy or engage…
The researcher becomes the fierce advocate for the user (not the product/brand/client); explaining the how, what, why of how a service has to work and helping to, iteratively, build that system so that the user happily engages with it and has a good experience with the product, service or brand.
In addition, User Research is often embedded within teams that are Agile; that is, working according to Agile work practices which is another feature of working within the software/developer world and is also a very different approach from traditional qualitative research approaches. It is therefore the approach that is also different; working with development teams and using software working practices is a variation that runs parallel with the very familiar methods of qualitative research.

I’ve been working for the Scottish Government in the Social Security Directorate; helping to design the range of new Benefits that are being rolled out across Scotland. They have used the creation of these new Benefits to make the experience of engaging with Benefits more positive, user-focused and accessible for vulnerable people. I have explored and enriched my understanding of a new approach that feels relevant for how we live, now, and I appreciate how research is able to adapt to the evolving human contexts that shift and merge over time. The software world has embraced research and made it its own; creating a whole lexicon that can feel so different but is fundamentally the same as the market research vocabulary. It is reassuring to know that User Research is still basically qualitative market research but also that it is working hard to innovate and reflect our world. It also reflects a stronger and more confident consumer/user voice. I have added it to my varied and expansive ‘toolbox’ of methods and approaches and place it beside those other tried and tested approaches that I still use to figure out what we’re all doing and what’s going on in our heads.

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