Prototyping & Usability Testing

I’ve spoken about the importance of user research in a product development cycle in my previous blog. What comes after a solid user research is the phase of prototyping and testing, and these are just as critical as user research. Research, Prototyping and, Usability Testing form the salt and spices of a well balanced dish (yes, we care a lot about food). A dish can be cooked without salt or spice, but you won’t have too many people liking it. The story is very similar in the case of product development too. A product built on assumptions and poor testing will eventually find itself difficult to accommodate the needs of its users and will need more fixing,which translates to a lot of wasted time.

A Wireframe is not a prototype.

While it’s very easy to get confused between a wireframe and a prototype, they’re quite different. A wireframe is a rough visualization of the proof of concept. They are stuff that we sketch on paper or on tools like Balsamiq that gives a rough idea of what an interface looks like. However, the scope of a wireframe ends there. A collection of wireframes that are related to each other and help a user complete a task flow qualifies as a prototype. Mockups are similar to wireframes too, just that their fidelity (level of detail)  would be different.

What is prototyping?

Prototyping is a quick an easy way to validate our ideas based on the research information we have. It is a proof of concept and not the actual product itself. And it should not be the actual product. Prototyping is done in the very early stages of ideation to understand what works for users and what doesn’t in order to quickly iterate based on the learnings from these tests. An important thing to note about prototyping is that ‘Prototypes are messy’. And that is how they should be. When thinking of testing, it’s very easy to confuse a prototype for a high-fidelity mockup. They’re two different entities altogether. While usability testing is done on both the interfaces, the purpose and the goals of the testing are very different. With a low fidelity prototype we test if users can figure out their way through the task and reach their goal in the expected way. A high fidelity mockup test would reveal if people can find the right buttons or if they like the colors. Understanding what we’re testing is very important to get the right data.

Usability Testing

Usability testing is an amalgamation of art and science. It is more than just watching users complete a task using a prototype or product. The real purpose of conducting a usability testing is not to see if a user can complete the task, but why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s not a test of the users but of their interaction with the system. If you read the previous sentence clearly, I defined two important facets of design: Interaction Design and Usability Testing. Interaction design is all about creating a dialogue between a user and a system while Usability testing is about understand how the dialogue takes place. While conducting a usability test, it’s all about reading between the lines.

While usability testing is a very detailed subject in itself, I will give a quick list of the most important things to consider before and while conducting a usability test.

  • When testing with a low fidelity prototype (A set of wireframes), we should make it clear to the participants that they’re not testing an actual product and it is just a proof of concept built to validate the design decisions. Using the findings of the usability test we would build a high fidelity prototype/mockup.
  • Recruit wisely. Do not get people who’d be biased and who are involved in the working of the project. Getting unbiased and candid feedback is the most effective way to build a solid product. Also, do not test with more than 6-8 users per iteration. That’s a good enough number to uncover most usability issues in the prototype.
  • Explain the purpose of the test to the participants clearly. When they know why they’re doing something, they’ll have more ownership on their actions and they’ll be more involved in the test, which will give us better findings.
  • Remind the users that they’re not being tested, but the prototype and whatever they do are not any of their mistakes. This helps them be more candid with their opinion.
  • Always ask participants to ‘think out loud’. Think-out-loud is a beautiful process to understand the psychology of our users. Asking them to speak out what they’re thinking lets us know their thought process which is very important in understanding their mental model.
  • Another thing to remember is that people do not remember instructions very well. They tend to get distracted and veer away from the task or may stop thinking out loud. As moderators, we’ve to be aware of their actions and give subtle reminders to think out loud or take another look at the task list.
  • If they’re completing a specific task, hand them a clear task list that tells them what they’re supposed to achieve. Also, do not be too specific with the tasks. For example, instead of telling ‘Click on the back’ button’, tell ‘do task x’. Let them figure out where to click. Also, having a clear task list will help participants stay on the task and not get distracted and lost in the middle of a task.
  • Before every new task, ask them to read out the task loud. This will keep the task more firmly in their mind.
  • Avoid helping users or giving them leading hints. Telling them ‘Ok you can press that button now’ is a direct hint and when people are testing, they WILL more often than not, click it even if they didn’t want to. As tempting as it is to help people when they seems lost, it’s important to know that they do not get such help when they’re using the product on their own. Let participants explore and figure their way out all the while making notes of what’s going on.
  • If a person cannot find something and asks you what to do next, do not tell them what to do, rather respond back with a question that helps you learn more. For example, when they cannot find a back button to a webpage, get stuck and ask for help, ask them what they’d usually expect in such a scenario, what they want to do and if they were to design the webpage, where they’d put the back button. It’s amazing how many things we think of as obvious are a total mystery to other people. And sometimes people give the best suggestions from their experience.
  • When you find that they’re completely lost and cannot find their way around, give them a couple of minutes to see if they can recover from the error. If they still cannot, give a subtle hint to see if they can find their way from there. If that doesn’t work as well, note that as a major usability issue, ask them what they’d expect and move them to the next task. At any point, Do not make them feel like they’re dumb.
  • It’s very important to constantly ask them to explain their actions and decisions. But their explanations must be taken with a pinch of salt. There is a difference between what people do and what they tell. This is why every usability test must have a well triangulated recording process. Usually usability tests will have a moderator, a note taker, screen and audio/video recording tools to correlate data.
  • Give close attention to their expressions. People are usually quite expressive and usually give out subtle feedback using non-verbal hints. For example a soft ‘hmmmm!’ to express surprise or a quick ‘oh shit!’ are all very important hints that something they didn’t expect happened. It’s important to note these moments and ask them with a follow-up question ‘please tell me why you said ‘oh shit!’.
  • The purpose of a usability test is not always to find faults in a system. If they like something, it is just as important to ask them why they liked it. Even if they do not tell, as moderators, we must make sure to find out the positives of the design. Knowing what worked will give designers a direction to go forward and iterate the design.
  • Start and end the usability test with a short interview. Before the test ask users about their experience using similar products, their frustrations, likes and their expectations. End it by asking their experience using the prototype, what they liked or disliked about it, what was most challenging and what they’d change if they could. Understanding their thought process is the goal of a usability test.

Knowing these points above is very important for a successful prototype design and testing. While it appears simple, its quite hard to stay focused while creating prototypes and testing with users. It’s very easy to slip into the user mentality and when we lose focus, we end up losing a lot of data and waste considerable amount of time both for us and the participants.

Prototyping and Usability studies are the equivalent to a physical structure’s foundation. While it may take some extra time and effort, going through these processes gives a product a very solid backbone which can later be used to build upon during successive iterations. This avoids the problem of building a product and later discovering it doesn’t work for its user. This is the reason why companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter put such heavy emphasis on research and design. They understand their users’ needs, goals and frustrations before designing a product and that’s what makes a cult-following billion dollar product.

(image credit: usabilitygeek.com)

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Seattle for Indian Students

This has been long pending. I faced quite a lot of problems when I first moved to Seattle for my higher education at The University of Washington and I always wished there was better information about the university, accommodation, food and living in general. And in the wake of the next batch of students coming in, I hope the information I’m going to cover here would be of more help for the incoming students. This series informs all about the life at The University of Washington and all the information here is based of my experiences in the last 8 months.
(Note: Opinions and views are purely personal and you are free to take my suggestions or ignore them if they don’t seem fit. Arguments will be ignored.)

Accommodation 

There are two types of accommodation students choose here: On campus accommodation provided by the university and off-campus accommodation in and around the university, more popularly known as the U District. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages.

On campus accommodation is relatively the more expensive option. It costs about ~$1000/month and includes a furnished room with kitchen, wi-fi, dishwasher, electricity and water, and access to study lounges. From what I have heard, apartments don’t have washing machines and you have to go to a laundry area to wash your clothes. The on-campus apartments aren’t really ‘on-campus’. They’re a block away from the university, although they’re the closest. Students need to apply for housing and get their apartments before landing here. Check for dates and deadlines in the UW Housing page.

If the on-campus option are beyond your budget, there are tons of off-campus apartments  around the campus in the u district. In fact, most of the residents of u district are students of UDub. The rates however, vary a lot depending on the location, amenities and size of the apartment/home. Although it costs lesser than on-campus, housing in the UDistrict is not cheap and the rates generally vary from $400-$700/person/month. The best way to look for these places are in websites like Zillow, Craigslist or Padmapper or get in touch with senior students to see if someone is vacating their place or looking for roommates. The lease period varies depending on the owner and most owners usually take a month’s advance rent as deposit.

A Note on Roommates if you’re living off-campus: Finding people who you get along well with is very important. Make sure you communicate the kitchen and other household responsibilities with your potential roommates before moving in. Grad life can be very hectic and you get very little time outside the coursework to take care of home and kitchen. It’s a tricky thing, but make schedules and distribute work evenly before moving in be very explicit about who does what and when. We didn’t do that and maintaining the kitchen and trash was a pain-in-the-bottomside.

Edit: Off-campus housing usually charge a deposit which would usually be between $700-$900 and some apartments add first month’s rent to the deposit for international students. While moving in, some of the apartments take the first and the last month’s rent. There would be a $60-$80 application fee for each member of the apartment. When you move out, you will get the deposit back sans the cleaning and repair costs which could be anywhere between $300-$500 depending on the condition you leave the apartment in.

Hypothetically if you rent an apartment whose rent is $1500/month, then in the worst case, you’d have to pay: [Deposit – $800 + $1500 + $80] + [First & Last month rent – $3,000] =  $5,380. That being said, it is left to the discretion of the apartment managers to charge you the aforementioned fees.

Food

The Ave is the most popular place for students in the UDistrict and it is a great place that has plenty of international cuisine options. You can have food from every part of the world depending on your mood. There are a lot of Thai and Chinese places along with Indian, Mexican, Mediterranean, Hawaiian and classic American Burger joints. Most of the stuff cost between $7-$12 for a filling meal. Some of my favorite places are (I’m a vegetarian. Cant speak for meat dishes):

  1. The Burger hut: This place makes the spiciest desi burgers. My regular order is the ‘Spicy Paneer Burger with Fries’.
  2. The Little Thai: Has great noodles. Can get as spicy as you like. My favorite is the Spicy Singapore Noodles.
  3. QDoba: This is my favorite Mexican place. Their Burritos are pretty great. They’re very filling and healthy.
  4. Hawaiian BBQ: Has a ton of options to choose from. For a vegetarian though, the choices are limited. I take the vegetarian noodle and it tastes somewhat similar to our Indian veg noodles. Not very healthy though.
  5. Garam Masala: This is a desi restaurant run by a Pakistani person. They make some really good naan and curry. I also like their vegetarian Biryani.
  6. Taste of India: This is not on the Ave. It’s about half an hour’s walk away from the campus, but this place serves the best Indian food in the U-District.
  7. Anjappar: Bellevue has a huge Indian community and there are a lot of Desi restaurants. I haven’t been to many, but Anjappar is by far the best Indian restaurant I’ve been to in Seattle. The place is  quite far though, about an hour away by bus (Logistics covered in the transport section) but the trip is totally worth for the authentic South Indian food they serve.
  8. Subway: They’re everywhere and pretty standard.

There is a huge cafeteria on campus in the ‘HUB’ building. They have a lot of options too, however, very limited for a vegetarian and hence I cannot speak much about the place.

Groceries: There are a couple of places in the UDistrict where we get our daily groceries from. The Safeway on the 15th Ave is the most popular place to get all the usual vegetables, cereals, milk and other drinks.

For desi stuff unfortunately, there isn’t a huge place for it in the UDistrict. One must go to Bellevue, an hour away by bus, where there are two big desi grocery stores: Mayuri and Apna Bazaar. They have pretty much every desi supply you’d ever need. The perks of traveling is a chance to dine at the Anjappar restaurant.

(Note: There is a restaurant called Udupi restaurant next to Anjappar. I paid a visit assuming they’re from Udupi and hoping to eat a plate of authentic Idli and Sambar. Worst decision)

Safety

One of the first questions I get asked about the university is regarding the safety, especially for HCDE since we have all-evening classes. Firstly, the reason HCDE has its classes in the evening is because it’s a professional continuing education program, which means your classmates be working professionals who work during the day and attend classes in the evening. While safety is a very subjective matter, in my personal experience I have never found U-district dangerous by any means. Most of the times I would walk back home with my friends and this being a university area, there would always be students and people on the streets. Having said that, there have been certain unfortunate incidents in the past and we must be in our caution. The university also provides many facilities for students. There are night-rides that go around the u-district ferrying students, and if need be, you can also get an escort from the campus to your residence. I have never tried that service and I’m not exactly sure about the process.

All things said, I’d probably rate the campus as a pretty safe place. I have never heard of any shooting type incidents like the ones we hear from other campuses. The people are very friendly and usually mind their own business unless we go calling for trouble.My advice would be to not wander around late in the night away from the main roads. And that’s the case with most cities in the world.

(more coming soon….)

 

Why Choosing To Become A UX Designer Was The Best Decision I Ever Made

I always believe things happen in life for a reason. I’m studying master’s in Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. As a graduate looking to get some experience and make some money, I applied for several positions to work as a Research Assistant on campus. I couldn’t make it, some due to lack of experience and some due to mismatch in role. Although I was upset, I never stopped looking and luckily I got a chance to work on a research project at the Department of Psychiatry as a User Researcher.

The objective of the project was to study stress patterns in people and come up with interventions that can help people cope better with stress. As a part of the research, I had to interview people and ask them questions, some of which no one would have ever asked them before. This was an opportunity for people to really open up to things they would probably find very uncomfortable talking in their private lives. Most of the times I could relate to what people were saying with my own stress patterns. Things like getting the feeling of being lost, losing focus, anxiety were some recurring themes.

However, one interview changed my perspectives. I interviewed a middle aged person, who had several complications in his life. He was suffering from several health, familial and financial issues which were compounding the stress levels in him. He suffered from sleep apnea which made it difficult for him to sleep for more than 2 hours at a stretch. Although, I had seen similar issues in my life before, this was the first time I heard in the shoes of someone believed to solve his problem. And while I felt I had big problems in life, I was humbled by learning the magnitude of problems people faced every day in their lives. Although the interview left me a bit shaken by the end, it gave me a reassurance I was always looking for — That choosing to become a UX Designer was the best decision I have ever made.

As a designer, my job is to listen to a user, empathize with his/her problems, and come up with solutions to problems that I previously thought had no solutions to. And this, is what I beleieve is the greatest challenge for a designer. It’s not just about designing interfaces and making things prettier, it’s about solving problems that make a significant difference in people’s lives. It’s about designing experiences that make people’s lives better. Be it with Eventosaur or the research work I’m doing at The university, every project poses me with unique problems in people’s lives and coming up with solutions to those problems is what drives me and gives me the greatest joy.

I am by no means a successful designer or a problem solver. I am far from that, but having made the choice to be on that path is what I am most satisfied with. Some day I hope to meet that person I interviewed and listen to him say “The solution your team designed helped me sleep better now and that makes me feel good” and I would have done my job.

Visual Communication Work

In the Winter quarter (2016) I had taken a course called Visual Communication (HCDE508). It was perhaps the most fun class I have ever been in. I learned a lot about all aspects of visual communication like typography, colors, layouts and harmony between them. It was a very refreshing experience and the course involved a lot of fun assignments and exercises. Here are the collection of all the design work I did during the quarter as a part of this class.

Text as image

In this exercise we were given a bunch of words and we had to create typograms that depicted the meaning of that word. I chose to play with ‘Fold’, ‘Organize’ & ‘Inflate’.

1. Fold

fold.png

2. Organize

organize.png

3. Inflate

Inflate.png

 

Color Harmony

In this class I learned about color theory, different color combinations and how colors can be used to change the mood of a visual element.

ColorHarmonyExercises.png

Layouts

In the next exercise we were asked to explore complex layouts using images, fonts and colors. The assignment involved creating two posters for an astronomy event at the Museum of Flight. We  I used Illustrator and Photoshop to create the posters.

Poster Version 1

I chose to use the negative space between the Earth and the Moon to add text. I used the Courier font for the body to bring out the effect of the 60s when space exploration was taking off. The Montserrat font (the title) with it’s rounded curves complimented the squarish Courier.

Poster-1.png

Poster Version 2

In this version I extracted the background in the shape of the text and used a gradient across the background image to make the text more legible. I used Montserrat again for the text. (I was in love with the font for some reason).

Poster-2.png

 

Final Assignment

The final assignment was the most challenging. The topic was very interesting. We had to create a website (web & mobile) version and a print poster for a speaker series event based on a topic of our interest. The topic I chose was something which is very close to my heart, Classical music. I created a speaker series called ‘Colors of Music’. My speakers were Dr. Rajan Parrikar, Dr. Ramesh Gangolli, Prof. Sunil Mukhi and Ustad. Zakir Hussain.

I chose vibrant colors as it represented the vivid, contrasting and dynamic characteristics of Hindustani classical music. The colors also represent the colors of my country’s national flag, from where the music first originated.

Web Version

Desktop-HD.png

laptop.png

 

Mobile Version

Mobile - full.png

 

phone-home.png

 

Poster

wallPoster.jpg

A Night Owl’s Guide to Waking Up Early

Looks like I have done it. It didn’t happen with a glowing ring of sun behind my head, but it was more of an organic change if I may say. After having tried and failed for the last 15 recallable years, looks like this weird hack to wake up early has finally started working. (Tl;dr version in the end if you don’t have time to read the big story)

I have tried everything from multiple alarm clocks to keeping coffee ready in the kitchen to recording my own voice as the alarm. But nothing worked. Even if I did wake up early, I would have a hard time keeping myself awake even after drinking coffee or taking bath. I would be groggy eyed and sitting like a zombie. However when I woke up at 8:30 or 9am, I would be very fresh and relaxed. What I didn’t understand was why didn’t I feel like this when I woke up at 6. What made the difference? I read articles after articles on every blog, Quora and Medium and couldn’t seem to do what they were all talking about waking up early.

Turns out, what we do to wake up, is as unique to us as are our fingerprints. According to science, we need a minimum of 6–8 hours of sleep depending on our age. I wont get into the intricacies now, but essentially under-sleeping or over-sleeping is not ideal for the body. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out why this was happening. And it was a very simple analysis. I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I was pushing my body to wake up before it was even ready. I would sleep late and expect myself to wake up early which was not ok for my body.

So I made a couple of small tweaks to the plan, which quite magically has started working. First, Instead of calculating what time I wanted to wake up, I started calculating how much of sleep time I needed depending on how tired I was. If it was a normal day, I figured out that 6 hours was a good amount of sleep. If I was tired, around 8 hours sleep seemed to be the ideal amount. Next, based on that, I changed the time I went to bed. I started going to sleep at 9:30 or 10pm. It felt weird in the beginning, especially being used to sleeping at 12:30 or 1am, but it wasn’t as hard to get used to as it was to wake up. All I had to do was eat, read a book for half an hour and I close my eyes. (Luckily for me, falling asleep isn’t that big a problem).

And then it worked. I ended waking up between 3:00–3:30 am. And I didn’t feel as groggy as I would before. Also, I would set the alarm at least 30 mins before I wanted to wake up so that I could take that 30 mins to ‘roll around’. During that time, I would try to keep my eyes open as much as possible. I started reading an article on my mobile screen so that the screen would wake me up. And after waking up, for the first couple of days, I ran into the bathroom and took cold shower that would really kick out any residual sleep.

The 10:30pm-3:30 am plan started working. And I stuck with it till it became a habit. Of course there were days when I just couldn’t wake up or when my work kept me up till 12am. I wouldn’t force myself on those days. I even sleep till 9am. Turns out the circadian clock has a will of it’s own. Be nice to it and it will be nice to you.

Eventually, I adjusted the time so that I would go to bed at 11 in the night and wake up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning. Right now I am at that stage where I am getting comfortable waking up early without feeling the need to roll back to sleep. I won’t say I have conquered my sleep yet. Sometimes I end up feeling sleepy at 9am and I sleep till 12pm. But I sleep knowing that I woke up at 4 and got some serious amount of work done early in the morning, which is an extremely satisfying feeling. Nowadays I wake up 5:30 am max. I keep three alarms at 30 mins intervals from 4:30am (depending on when I sleep or when I want to wake up). And I use the morning time to do things I usually don’t get time to do otherwise. Like writing blog posts, learning new things or getting the pending work done. Knowing that I get these extra 3–4 hours in the morning is like discovering a productivity goldmine.

I strange to know that it actually took me such a seemingly complicated effort to just wake up, but I guess it had to be done to form a good habit. Now go ahead and discover your crazy secret to wake up early. Please share if it works.

Tl;dr:

  1. Body needs minimum amount of sleep. Varies from 6–8 hours based on body type and lifestyle.
  2. Sleep early to wake up early.
  3. Start with a crazy 8pm-2am or 9pm-3am cycle and slowly change it to your required start time.
  4. Take a cold shower. It’s difficult. But the first 30 seconds of the cold water hitting your body is the best kick your body needs to wake up. When the body adjusts to the temperature, you won’t even feel the cold water. It just feels like normal water.
  5. Try to keep eyes open as much as possible after the alarm goes off. The ’10 more minutes’ is the greatest enemy. In fact, snooze button should have never existed in the first place. It’s an evil plan to put us back to sleep.
  6. Key is to get used to waking up when it’s still dark outside.
  7. Make it a habit.
  8. Done.

P.S: This post was quite instrumental in helping me be more productive: https://medium.com/life-learning/8-things-every-person-should-do-before-8-a-m-cc0233e15c8d#.y7ewjqe9i

Writing the right Statement of Purpose and Letter of Recommendation

I keep getting requests from people asking me to review their SOPs and Recommendation letters. I thought I might add some tips on what I think is the right approach to writing a good SOP and recommendation letters.
1. When you’re writing an SOP, always remember, the profs have about 2-3 minutes to decide whether you’re in or out. Nobody reads the whole story carefully to really understand. It’s your job to write succinctly and to convince them in less than 2-3 mins about your goals and ideas. Remove all fluff. Whatever does not directly help your chances of getting an admit, chuck it out, no matter how passionate you’re about it.
2. Be very articulate and maintain a consistent flow. Do not write it like an elongated resume.
3. Every statement you make should have a solid backing and it must be relevant to your applying for the course. Do not make vague statements that confuse the readers.
4. It’s not necessary to have a flowery SOP (as served in silver plates by the scam consultancies). Content is always far more valuable than presentation. As long as you’ve a good story and a strong passion towards the subject explained in a fluent narrative, an SOP with simple words is more than enough to get you through.
5. A general tip to start would be to write everything you ever want to write in an empty document ,relevant or not. Once you have everything written in, start chopping down. It’s hard to get rid of certain parts of the story, but be ruthless about it. Anything not directly relevant, cannot stay. Once that is done, start optimizing the paragraphs and sentences. Group together similar incidents or projects. Try to combine 2-3 sentences into one small sentence keeping the meaning intact. Stop at every paragraph and ask yourself ‘Is this relevant to the subject?’ If the answer is yes, keep it, if not don’t.
6. Have a strong opening and closing paragraphs. Do not write cliched sentences that says “I was born to study this course in your university”. If that is true, substantiate and explain why. Do not make any claims go unexplained. Also, write clearly why you’re applying for that particular program, what inspired you to apply and why you’re a good fit. This is super important.
7. Avoid going to the consultancies who promise to write your SOPs. No one can write your story better than yourself. Writing a SOP is an iterative process. It takes at least 8-10 iterations to get a good SOP. I myself had 23 versions of my SOP by the time I submitted it. Make sure you find yourself a mentor and work with them on your SOP.  There are a lot of kind people in the world who’d be glad to help you out. Consultancies aren’t the mentors you’re looking for.
8. Sometimes we may have to write our own recommendation letters. In such cases, don’t copy-paste glittery flattery from a LOR template online. There will be 500 other people telling the exact same thing in all their LORs. If you have to stand out, make sure you have a unique story to tell in the words of your recommender. Recollect incidents of working with them, what made your recommender impressed about you, what were your contributions to the department, university or any institution you were a part of? How did you make a difference to the place you studied/worked at?These are the things which get noticed easily between all the ‘He was a very hard-working and one of the brightest students in the class”. Remember, LORs are not written to satisfy our ego or make us feel good about ourselves (it’s easy to get carried away while writing about ourselves).
Hope this helps. All the best.

What is User Research and Why is it important?

User research is one of the most important stages of product development but it is something we often don’t give as much attention we ought to be giving. It is something we should be taking seriously because at the core of user research lies empathy. The power to understand other people. Unless we know whom we are designing for or what their problems are, it is very difficult to design the right product. User research is a powerful tool that helps us answer these questions. This article is a 10,000 feet overview of what user research is and what difference it makes to problem development.

Often, a great place to start developing a product is by identifying the problems we face ourselves, or the problems faced by our close family members. More often than not, these problems will be shared by other people as well. And that is where User Research comes to picture. Once we identify the problem, we need to start looking for people who share the same problem. Conversely, we must also figure out if the problem we are facing is also being faced by other people. We must then go on to understand who are these people, how is the problem affecting their lives and what are they presently doing to overcome those problems. This can be done by employing several User Research methods like contextual inquiry, observation, surveys and interviews. Ideo’s method cards has a great collection of techniques that helps us understand our target audience depending on the type of idea we’re working on.

Conducting a user research not only validates our ideas, but also helps us narrow down on our design question. Most ideas generally start out as solutions to a very broad question. At the beginning of one of my HCDE projects, we started out with an idea to solve all the problems of international students arriving at Seattle and making them feel more at home. While the motive behind the idea was good, our scope was too wide. When we started digging deep into the design question, ‘How might we help International students feel more at home?’, we started running into several questions, like:  Where are these students coming from? What are their problems? Do they all face the same problems or does the severity of the problems vary between the students? And many more.

We conducted a user research to get answers to these questions. We posted an online survey, interviewed several international students and we observed their daily lives. After we conducted the research, we could see a trend in the data gathered. There were some problems which affected a certain section of people more than others; There were problems only a certain age-group faced while the rest didn’t seem to be bothered by it etc. This data revealed insights to us which we never had even thought of when we started. After analyzing the data collected, we finally narrowed our scope to helping international students find reliable off-campus accommodation when they land in Seattle.

This exercise made it very easy for us to focus on the most important problem faced by our target customers. More often than not, the problem they face would be completely different or a different form of what we think is the problem they face. Conducting a user research bridges that gap between the us designers and the users and makes it very easy to communicate between each other using the product we design as the medium. We can understand their problem better and the users can understand the solution better and this creates a beautiful product-customer ecosystem. This is what makes people love the products they use, because they are designed with the users in mind. They solve the exact problem faced by the user. Ultimately, this is what is called User-Centered Design.