Surveys are a good way to collect opinions, but rarely a good methodology to understand behaviour. Surveys are useful when you need a numeric answer to a specific, well-researched question from a clearly defined group of people. Don’t use a survey if you require long, detailed answers. Use a qualitative research method instead.
When conducting your user research you should be aiming at designing something that works, not something that people prefer. If you’re designing a product your main concern is making sure that people know what they need to do and can do it as easily as possible. You’re looking for a product experience that’s efficient, effective and that satisfies the user.
Therefore, research as the basis of product design is critical to ensure whatever you’re designing meets the mark. Furthermore, the right type of research is critical to get an effective outcome.
Contextual inquiry is about getting context. Going into your target users’ environment, taking photos and being an “apprentice”. Asking them questions. “How do you do your job” etc. or whatever design problem you’re trying to solve.
Interviewing is a good one for collecting qualitative insights. You can ask your key user about their motivations, pain points and collect some demographic info. You need to get a sample size of around four people to get better insights into common problems or other patterns occurring.
Drawbacks of Contextual Inquiry
Whilst contextual inquiry is the preferred method of user research, it’s not fool proof. The Hawthorne studies show that when people are observed they can behave differently than they would have otherwise. For example, a group of researchers wanted to see if having the lights dimmed had any impact on productivity. The results varied. Initially, they believed the results were directly related to the lights, but in actual fact it was the change of behaviour after being observed!
The best way to deal with the observer effect is as follows:
- Spend time with your participant. It may take 30 mins, 2 hrs or a whole day but eventually your participant will behave authentically.
- Sample various participants. You may get one or two participants who are affected by your presence but it's unlikely that it will affect your entire sample.
- Get participants doing real tasks. When people do the stuff they do every day, they can’t help but do it authentically. For example, try putting on a shirt or getting dressed in a way that’s different to the way you normally do it. It’s difficult!
Should I Use Customer Surveys at All?
In my experience, surveys can be a good way to augment your research. For example, I use the System Usability Scale survey to measure customer satisfaction once they have interacted with the system I’m testing. It’s a series of questions based on subjective opinion, but because you’re measuring satisfaction (a subjective measure) it’s good here.
Early on in the design process, when you’re thinking “what should I build?” it’s not a good idea to get attitudinal data through surveys. They won’t help you get into what the users’ core needs are.
User research methods offer deeper insights. Observing a user in context is the best way to get rich insights into what the user needs.
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