Thoughts on User Research through observation

Day 164 of Self Quarantine             Covid 19 Deaths in U.S.:  177,000

User research with an emphasis on observing users in their natural living and working environments is a key foundation for software product development.  In “Observing Users for Software Development” I shared my early introduction to the power of observing users along with several examples of professional design firms user observation leading to innovations.

Recently, in mentoring several CEOs in early stage software product development, I am spending a lot of time teaching, coaching, and encouraging them to do a lot of user observation.  Doing user observation is difficult in normal times, but especially difficult in the age of the pandemic.  There is only a certain amount of wide-field ethnography that you can do over Zoom with a camera controlled by the user.  I find that entrepreneurs are reverting to doing interviews with users rather than observing.

User research for product building is a bit different than interviewing for business and market research.  With human centered design user research or customer experience research a different process is needed.  One needs to switch from interviewing (talking) to observing the users, purchasers, and influencers in the wild.  The key things that you are looking to observe are the overall workflow that your potential product exists in, the skills and behaviors of the users, and which parts of the workflow matter.

At Attenex, we had the privilege of being co-located with a sophisticated and high volume eDiscovery law firm.  We spent a lot of time observing and doing action oriented research where the software engineers spent a day a month actually doing eDiscovery.  We came out with a workflow that looked like the EDRM model:

We realized that all the costs were in the four boxes inside the Legal Cost on the right above.  Our competitors were spending their time building components for all of the boxes.  We focused on the four boxes where all the costs were going and reduced the costs by a factor of 10 times.  That bought us 8 years of competitive advantage AND 8 years of value based pricing while everyone else was stuck at commodity pricing.

Because we couldn’t use video ethnography due to confidentiality and legal privilege, we had to use pure observation and lots of note taking.  While not my preferred way, it worked.  The action oriented research on real matters (parallel to actual eDiscovery professionals) also helped the software engineers and UX researchers to figure out how to keep improving productivity.

Yet, the only way I’ve found to “teach” observation is through a lot of practice and mentoring/coaching.  The Institute of Design does a reasonable job of teaching and Blinkux does an excellent job with professional projects for observing users.

The problem with interviewing when it comes to user research is that folks Make Stuff Up (MSU).  People don’t want to appear stupid so they MSU.  Worse, most people have no idea what they really do tacitly.  Yet, with observing folks in their natural work habitat (not conference rooms) they are incredibly articulate.  All of the major insights I have made over 50 years came from observing folks in the wild.


In his book on Outcomes and Lean UX, Josh Seiden provides the above model.  So what a good user researcher does is observe all of the above.  The user researcher wants to see what resources the user has (not just in the computer but what is on their desk, who they call on the phone or slack or email or who is around them in the office that they talk to and are collocated with).  What activities lead to what work outputs that lead to what outcomes that have what business impact.  And then ideally do the same for the customer’s customer.  How is your product idea going to work for your customer to produce impact and business results for their customers.

I particularly like simple to remember frameworks like AEIOU.

The bottom axis in the diagram is what observing users is all about – seeing the existing implicit.  Steelcase described this research in their article “Shaping Order from Chaos.”

Another way to look at this process is through the virtuous cycle of user observation (video ethnography where possible so you can look and relook at something 10s to 100s of times), insight generation, then rapid prototyping (including paper prototyping) while observing usage and then repeat.  To get to our V1 of Attenex Patterns we went through this loop at least 100 times including full blown prototypes that we put in users hands.  By Version 4 of Attenex Patterns we’d been through over 350 working software prototypes.  I periodically give a history talk that walks through many of the prototypes and how we got to >10x productivity.  Attenex First Year shows several of the prototypes.

While the professional human centered design firms have a lot of different PhD types doing the video ethnography and user research, I was pleasantly surprised how easy it is to learn in my own work.

The good news 25 years after I started working with the Institute of Design is that there is a growing literature from the ID professors on human centered design methods.

The ID literature I recommend is:

Now that Clive Dilnot and Suzan Boztepe (former ID student of mine) have published Heskett’s unpublished works, I will be publishing my extensions of his work.  John as an economist by training that came over to design through industrial design.  I loved sitting in on his classes when I was teaching at ID and having long lunch conversations with John about design and economics.

Explaining Value Co-Creation Theory is fodder for another blog post or two.

This entry was posted in Attenex Patterns, Content with Context, Design, Entrepreneuring, Outcome, Reflecting, User Experience. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Thoughts on User Research through observation

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