For UX professionals, talking to real users is undoubtedly an important part of the process. Our clients are experts in their industries and we are experts in ours but the best way to learn what users do, think, and want is to ask them directly.
That’s where user workshops come in handy. In essence, user workshops are sessions where we invite people who have a connection with our client to meet and talk about their experiences. Through workshops we can draw together groups of real people and quiz them about their behaviours and opinions.
User workshops won’t tell you exactly what to do but, if run correctly, they can give you invaluable insight at the crucial early stages of a project. They can also be relatively inexpensive to run.
Group dynamics can also lead to interesting discoveries that we can’t get from other forms of user consultation. For example, a user may be inspired by the debate and thus encouraged to share views when they may otherwise remain silent.
All this sounds good, yes? Here’s some advice to help you setup your next user workshop.
Before your workshop
The best workshops take planning. Start by talking with your colleagues and/or clients about your reasons for wanting to hold a user workshop:
- Who do you want to speak to?
- What information are you hoping to obtain?
- What topics of discussion would presumably provide the most insight?
Next, recruit well. Recruiting users is always the hardest job because it takes longer than you think. When it comes to recruiting users, it doesn’t matter if you use a specialist recruiter (e.g. Acumen) or if you drag them in off the street. As long as you determine who you want to speak to, how many people you want and what you will give them for their time. Be sure to incentivise well: £25-£50 in hard cash is enough to ensure people turn up but not so much that they just come for the money
Create profiles of the kind of people you want to talk to. Preferably people who already understand the product or service you are discussing. Be sure to get the numbers right. Up to six people is a good number for a simple discussion, 12 to 18 is better if you want something more involved with breakout sessions
Prepare your users. Whatever time you set aside for your workshops you don’t want to spend a large chunk of it explaining why people are in the room and then another chunk sitting in silence while everyone has a good think about it. Instead, send participants an email or letter about a week before the actual session that explains where it will be, how long it will take, what you want to talk about, what they should bring with them (do you want them to look at a website beforehand?)
Get the setting right. If you can, visit the intended venue for your workshop to make sure it’s up to the job – Is it big enough and in the best location? Does it have the right facilities? – Get a feel for where everyone will sit and move around.
Workshops will inevitable be an alien environment for your users. For some, the idea of sharing their thoughts with a roomful of strangers will be downright scary. At the start of the session you should smile and run through a simple checklist, saying something akin to:
- The session will largely involve open discussion and I want you to speak up!
- I’ll give you support but I want you to do the majority of the talking.
- Be vocal. The more you say, the more I will understand what to do next.
- Be honest. All your views ‐ positive and negative ‐ are important.
- I am not the client and anything you say will remain confidential.
- Finally, and most importantly, there is no such thing as a silly idea. I want to approach things afresh, without preconceptions or perceived limitations.
Make the most of your time
At this point you have achieved something relatively rare – you have gathered users together in one room. Don’t waste the opportunity! Work hard to avoid dull monologues peppered with uncomfortable silences. One of the best ways to get the blood pumping and conversation flowing is to get people out of their chairs. Hand out post-it notes and pens. As you progress through the session, encourage people to scribble down their ideas and stick them on the nearest wall.
You are looking for breadth, not depth so avoid spending too long on any specific subject (e.g. the pros and cons of social media); don’t be afraid to close discussions down if you think a particular topic has been wrung dry.
Remember you are dealing with different personalities. Encourage the quiet ones to speak and wrestle the talking stick from the verbose, but do it in a nice way. Mike B. Fisher provides an excellent observation on differing personality traits and how to deal with them in his article, Understanding User Personalities.
And when it comes to talking: don’t hold the baton. People naturally want to fill silences; shutting up will encourage others to talk. When I put a question to a group I count to ten in my head before saying anything else. I usually get to about six before someone says something and… off we go!
Record the events. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be too busy running the session to take notes so get someone else to help you, or use a Dictaphone or a video camera to record what people say and do. For me, voice recordings are most useful. I can play them over and over again and a lot of what users say then tends to sink into my brain through osmosis.
And if you’ve used post-it notes take pictures of everything before you take them off the wall ‐ you’ll soon forget how they were laid out.
However you communicate what you’ve learned, make sure you do it in a quick, easy-to-understand way. Nobody reads 150-page, wordy reports so be economical with the detail.
I prefer to sit and talk through the findings. I may support the discussion with simple, visual presentations and use recorded clips if they help to make a particular point.
I will sometimes create a more-involved document to be circulated to the masses, but even then I avoid wordyness. I rely hugely on images and simple bullet point lists and aim to produce something that anyone can skim in a couple of minutes and get the general gist.
In sum: next time, don’t just think about your users, talk to them!
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