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Chapter 4. getting to know your users > understanding user needs

understanding user needs

Once you’ve decided what kind of site (or feature) you’re launching, your users can help you design it. It makes sense, after all, to know how your users work before you decide how your site will work.

“Design is now inseparable from user research,” said Jeffrey Veen, author of The Art & Science of Web Design. “We literally do nothing until we talk to people. We try to go into a project with no assumptions, and just hear how people approach the task.”

You should know how your users work before deciding how your site will work.

So instead of designing a site and then seeing if people can use it, Veen starts off with what people can do. The question he tries to answer: How do they do things without this site?

“So if you’re building a banking site, you could just copy an interactive application, like the ATM, that exists already. But it’s better to just go talk to people about how they balance their checkbooks. And listen. And notice the steps. If you talk to 10 people about that, you’ll see how to make your application.”

planning a new site

Let’s say you’re planning a gardening site, which will offer advice and supplies. Since you’re the site owner, chances are you know a thing or two about plants. You’re probably one of those perfect people who grows an herb garden on his Manhattan rooftop, or plants an organic orchard within a month of buying her first home at 22.

Being such a person, you probably have your own ideas about site features. However, as we’ve discussed, you’re not building this site for yourself. (See you are not your user, p. 55.)

So you need to learn how other people in your target audience accomplish relevant tasks—in this case, planning and planting a garden. By understanding how they currently operate, you can identify their needs, and ways to meet them. Also, if you understand how users think about the tasks, you can create a navigation system they’ll intuitively understand.

task analysis

Task analysis is a fancy way of saying “talk to people about how they get something done.” It involves interviewing typical users about how they approach and accomplish a specific task related to your web site. Note, however, that you’re not asking them about the site itself. You want to know what they do, not what they’d like in a site.

6 steps in task analysis:

Clarify the user goal that you’re studying.

Recruit users to interview. They can be current customers or people who fit the description of your typical user.

Interview users about how they accomplish the goal—not just on your web site, but in general.

Record the interview by taping it and/or typing up the answers.

Identify the key tasks and sub-tasks that your user mentioned.

Convert tasks into features on your site.

Usually, the interview covers the whole range of tasks that the user must complete en route to the final goal. (If the goal is planting a garden, then tasks may include deciding what to plant, buying the seeds, designing the garden, and so forth.)

The interviewer asks a series of open-ended questions, allowing the user to describe her approach in her own words. An effective interviewer will follow up to get more complete responses, but refrain from putting words in her mouth, or re-framing her answers to fit his own ideas. The goal, after all, is not only to understand the task, but also how the user thinks about it.

The goal is not only to understand the task, but also how the user thinks about the task.

Afterwards, read through the transcript with an eye toward identifying tasks. Usually, you’ll be able to identify discrete tasks within the user’s responses.

The next step is to group similar tasks together. You may find, for instance, that one user read magazines, visited a botanical garden, and drove around his neighborhood—all to get ideas about what his garden could look like. All these tasks might be categorized under “getting ideas.”

One easy way to group tasks is to write each sub-task on a Post-it note, then cluster them into groups of related tasks (See chart, opposite). You can create a separate Post-it chart for each user interviewed. By comparing them, you get a sense for different users and how their needs may overlap or diverge.

converting tasks into site features

You should be able to map the tasks mentioned in your interviews to a list of potential site features. Any prominent task without a corresponding feature—or worse, a prominent feature without a corresponding user-generated task—is a red flag.

For example, if your CEO has his heart set on a personalized weather chart but no users mentioned “checking the weather” as a task pertinent to the site’s mission, you’ve got a good argument for standing up to the boss. Similarly, if many users mention a task that you don’t address—you should think about incorporating it.

getting good results from task analysis

Task analysis is a method for analyzing how users accomplish a task related to your site:

  • Recruit representative users. Ideally, each user should fit squarely within one of your predefined audience segments. If using a friend or acquaintance (to reduce costs), ask them to “represent a group.” To ensure quality (and sufficient quantity), users should be rewarded for their time, with cash or goodies.

  • Ask good, open-ended questions. It’s essential to be open-minded and to ask open-ended questions. Don’t let your own business goals taint what you ask or how you interpret the answers. Also learn the vocabulary of the subject before beginning interviews. Know what you’re talking about, and how to talk about it.

  • Find a good interview spot. It’s best to do face-to-face interviews, which allow for visual cues. Ideally, a private, quiet, interview space outside of the company office. Phone interviews are an acceptable way of achieving geographic spread, but the results won’t be as good as in face-to-face interviews, which generate more detail and a greater sense of connection.

  • Generate an accurate transcript. Always record the interview, even if you have someone typing simultaneously. The typist should record both the questions and the user’s responses. The transcript should include the user’s own words and expressions.

  • Analyze the results. Include all the steps users mentioned—even if you think they’re unnecessary or irrelevant to your site. Pay attention to when and where they get things done. Pay attention to what frustrates them or takes too much time. Notice the words they use to describe tasks. Don’t allow your personal opinions or knowledge of the business goals taint the analysis.

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