Publishers of technology books, eBooks, and videos for creative people

Home > Articles > Web Design & Development > Usability

  • Print
  • + Share This
Like this article? We recommend

Like this article? We recommend

How to Research and Understand Users

Now that you know why it’s important to talk to your users, and that it’s pointless to ask them broad questions (like "What should the software do?"), you might wonder how to get to the core of Molly’s innermost desires. The way to do this should seem obvious. You’ve likely had at least one argument in your life about the fact that you weren’t listening to your spouse, parents, best friend, whomever—but I’ll spell it out for you just for clarity’s sake.

  1. Accept that Molly has no idea what your software might be able to do. She certainly doesn’t have the technical chops to explain it. She likely doesn’t even realize that your product could simplify the task of creating a client birthday list (for mailing out 10% off coupons); therefore, she’ll never mention that this task is particularly gruesome and it would be great if your software could do that for her.
  2. Look a little deeper. Don’t ask Molly what the software needs to do. Instead, find out what she does and how she does it now. Molly only knows her way of doing things, so find out what she knows. In other words, listen to her.

Surveys

A great way to find people who fall into your target audience is to look around your own organization. In the case of the aforementioned sales support tool, look to your own company’s sales department. Use SurveyMonkey or something similar to put together a quick screening survey you can send out to the whole department to determine who might have the most useful information. If your product is aimed more at senior salespeople, the survey should weed out the trainees and leave you with a short list of qualified sales geniuses. SurveyMonkey makes quick work of creating nice, easy-to-use survey forms, and offers a set of tools used to analyze the results, so I highly recommend it, but you can use whatever survey tools make you happy and give you the information you need.

Contextual Inquiry

Once you’ve found some people who fall into your target audience, get close to them. I know, the last thing you want to do as a programmer is talk to those peppy salespeople down the hall who ring a big gong every time they make a sale, but if your product is aimed at salespeople, try to find some people who don’t completely clash with your nerd-like tendencies, and latch onto them. Get permission from whoever is in charge over there on the Gong Show and go bug the people who on your short list. Of course, by bug, I mean speak with, very nicely, which roughly translates to beg. These people are your users, so play nice. (If you’re building a product for a client company, by the way, you should go there for a few days and learn what you can onsite.)

Set up a time when you can "shadow" each one of your users, and go have some fun bonding with your new best friends. Shadowing, for those of you who never worked in retail or waited tables, is the act of quietly hovering over the shoulder of someone who knows what she’s doing, with the goal of learning to do that person’s job so that one day you may also be a Jedi Master. Naturally, there are a few tricks to doing this well:

  • Make it abundantly clear that you’re not trying to build a tool that replaces the user. You’re trying to build a tool that makes the user’s job easier. You certainly don’t want users thinking that you’re one of the two Bobs from the movie Office Space, stealthily finding ways to make them homeless for the holidays.
  • Follow the user around and see what she does and how she does it. Take notes. (Hint: You’ll need a notepad and a pen. Though it’s ridiculously low-tech, it’s still the best way to write quick notes when you’re running around.)
  • Ask questions. Not so many that you become a major distraction, like meetings, causing undue stress and anxiety. Just ask simple questions to clarify anything that isn’t perfectly clear. And take more notes.
  • Think about ways in which software could eliminate Redundant Task A, Annoying Task B, and I Hate This Part of My Job Task C. When you have a good sense of what problems the user faces and how your tool might solve some of those problems, strut on back to your desk and get all those notes in order. You’ll need them later.

Card-Sorting Exercises

If you’re designing an information space, perhaps a company intranet, a great way to determine how users will expect the information to be organized is through card-sorting exercises. The gist is that you write down on index cards all the topics that need to be organized, hand the cards to a group of people who fall into the target audience, and have them sort the cards into piles of related topics and then name the piles. Sounds pretty simple, right? It is, but there are hidden tricks when performing such exercises, and other things to consider about how to run a card-sorting session, so be sure to get the scoop in more detail before you attempt this approach at home. To get started, here’s a nice tutorial on the subject from Step Two.

Remote User Research

If you don’t have direct access to users, perhaps because you’re building commercial software meant to be used by millions of different people (none of whom work within 100 yards of your desk), you need to get more inventive. Online tools such as WebEx and GoToMeeting can be used to perform remote user research. You won’t be able to get the firsthand knowledge you can get from contextual inquiry, and the environment will be a little unnatural compared to stalking a coworker in person for a day, but you can still do card-sorting and other exercises that help reveal an information architecture that makes sense for your site or product.

WebEx and GoToMeeting are quite affordable, but for them to work with these exercises you’ll need to create some way for users in the web-based meeting to perform the exercises. For example, use PowerPoint to create a box for each topic that would normally be an index card, and have a designated moderator for the group take charge of doing the physical card sorting (via the magic of application sharing, available in each of these tools), based on the input of everyone in the meeting.

You can also do something a bit more complicated: Whip up a card-sorting engine with Flash, complete with drag-and-drop cards and dynamic card creation based on loaded data. If you don’t have Flash chops, hit up the geek down the hall who makes all those cool software simulations your marketing department uses, and see whether he or she can put together a Flash program for you. No geeks down the hall? Try the online forum for your local Flash users group and find a contractor. It’ll cost more but take less work in the long run, because you can simply make a list of your topics in an XML or text file and the Flash template will handle the rest. Of course, your new Flash toy will also need a way to dish out a report on the results, so you don’t lose them the second the e-meeting is over.

Another good option, but a bit on the expensive side, is MindCanvas. Among other features, this web-based tool performs card-sorting and divide-the-dollar exercises—in which users assign a certain portion of a total (fictitious) dollar value to different features, thereby ranking them by importance—and is well equipped to give you reports on everything you do. There is no pricing information on the MindCanvas site (a sure sign it ain’t cheap), so you’ll have to talk to MindCanvas folks directly and work out those details.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account

Peachpit Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from Peachpit and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.

Overview


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about Peachpit products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information


To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.

Surveys

Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites; develop new products and services; conduct educational research; and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.

Newsletters

If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email ask@peachpit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information


Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.

Security


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.

Children


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.

Marketing


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information


If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.

Choice/Opt-out


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by Adobe Press. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.peachpit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information


Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents


California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure


Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.

Links


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact


Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice


We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020