To start this, let’s imagine you’re an actor. You’re auditioning to play the part of a parent, who has two children under 5, and is juggling all the things that life sends their way. Now, let’s imagine that you have no children.
How would you get under the skin of this person? How would you make sure your audition is authentic, and you get the part?
In my mind, you have two options: you could just sort of…guess: that is, you could use your gut feeling to try and imagine what life must be like with two small children. You could base the entire thing on what you think life would be like for this person.
Or, you could really find out what life would be like. You could find parents that fit the bill and ask them what their experiences are; ask them what a good and bad day looks like, find out what time they wake up and go to bed, and find out how they spend their day. You could find out what in their lives is stressful and causing them issues- you could find out what they enjoy; and what makes them happy! You might ask to flick through their photo albums, or their wall calendars, and find out what they’ve been up to lately. You could observe some parents in their home environment, to watch how they behave, and observe their real life struggles first hand. You might put yourself in their shoes and try and experience it for yourself: even look after a couple of children for the day. You would ask them what they read for advice – is it blogs, or books? One you knew, you would read them.
You would, in short, do everything you could to try and see the world the way they do. You would put yourself in their shoes, so that you could feel how they feel. To sum up, you would empathise with them.
It’s the same principle with UX. (If you aren’t sure what UX is, why not take a look at our blog post here?) In fact, one of the most important things to remember is that we are not the user. This means we have to utilise research to really put ourselves in the minds of the user. We have to take our assumptions of what we think the user wants or how they feel, put them aside, and immerse ourselves in user research.
But what user research can we conduct that would allow us to truly empathise with the user? First up is surveys. Asking the right questions to the right users is a key aspect of how we can conduct this user research. Diversity is also hugely important, considering variations in age, abilities, and so on and so forth. This helps us to determine the user’s goals and expectations.
If it’s an existing website that you’re working on, then Google Analytics is an excellent tool for identifying user pain points and highlighting any current issues with user journeys. This is the UX equivalent of looking through someone’s photo album or calendar (though perhaps less invasive!) We figure out where they’ve been going and what they’re trying to do. What is stopping them from getting to where they want to go? What trends or patterns are emerging?
Finding out what they want to do and where they want to go is a little bit like reading our busy parent’s blogs or books: learning what they want and how they want to get there can help us to craft our journey, making sure that we answer these questions.
The next step (a very effective method for gaining user insight) is ‘usability testing’. Simply put, this is observing the user (of a website usually) in as natural an environment as possible (before you get worried, we aren’t spying on anyone through windows here!)
Users know they’re being studied and that’s when observation takes place: as interestingly, what people say they’re going to do, and what they actually do, are often very different! From this, we can see first hand what they like or don’t like on a website, what they find easy to do and what struggles they have – then we can start to empathise with them.
As well as observing, asking the right questions is also vital at this stage. The aim here is to extract as much quality information as possible and thus gain a greater insight into the user’s experience. So rather than using closed-ended questions like: ‘Was that easy to use?’ we should instead ask an open-ended question like: ‘What do you think works well on the site, and what did you find difficult?’. Just think of the ‘Yes/No’ game you played as a child: basically, you want to avoid ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers!
The value of this ‘Truman Show’-style view of the user cannot be underestimated. It allows us to connect the dots and gain a real insight into their experience, with a clear focus and tangible objectives we need to meet – to not only create a great user experience, but empower the user, too.
All these aspects of the UX process allow us to gain a sense of real empathy for our user, which we then use to inform the design and functionality of a website. In our acting analogy, we cannot possibly imagine how it feels to be another person, so we do research to inform our performance. UX is just the same!
After all, we cannot create a good experience based on somebody else’s likely thoughts, feelings and actions without putting ourselves in their shoes, which requires us to empathise with them. So when it comes to good user experience, or UX, the secret is empathy, always. We care about our users, so we can provide the best experience possible for them – no matter what!
Written by Scott Ashton February of 2020