User Research and Support: Do you really know your users?

When I worked in support for advertising products at Google we decided to do a round of user research leading up to a revamp of our help centers. The revamp involved re-writing all our content, restructuring our multiple help centers, and building new UIs for the help centers and troubleshooting tools that were available to advertisers. Since it was such a large and global project we wanted to get a better idea of how advertisers used AdWords and the self-help tools that were available. So we visited advertisers to talk to them about their businesses and to do some user testing at their computer to see how they actually used the products. The story is about one of those visits the team did and why that visit became important to our team and has stayed with me since.

On one of the visits three of us went to visit a local small business that used AdWords as one of the main channels to bring in new customers. They all spent some time in the shop with the owner of the business talking about the products they sold and the story of the business. All very helpful to help build profiles of the different types of users we worked with.
And then they asked if they could sit down with him and take a look at how he used AdWords, talk about how often he logged in, look at which reports he used, and so on. Which was really the main point of the visit. And his reply was, “Sure. If you just get in your car and follow me, then we’ll go over to my uncle’s place, because I don’t own a computer, so I use the computer that’s in his garage.” The person they had been picturing spending a good chunk of his time at the computer poring over his AdWords reports to dream up new advertising strategies did not own a computer!

As the enlightened product and support people we were, we had all learned (through painful mistakes mostly) that our users weren’t all exactly like us. We knew they didn’t all spend all day sitting in front of two 24” monitors using the newest browser. Some used an old version of Internet Explorer with 17 different pre-installed toolbars covering most of their 14” CRT screen. So our adjusted worldview was something like “some users have smaller screens”. But what my colleagues realized while driving over to that uncle’s garage was that we still weren’t even close to grasping the complexity of the reality of our users. And that we still made major assumptions about our users. And finally, that that would always be the case. Knowing more about our users would always be possible and we needed to always assume that there was something we didn’t know that would impact how people used our products.

One thing we realized was how counter-productive it was to our learning that we kept calling our users “advertisers”. It made sense, they used the advertising products we built, so that was what they were to us. But that’s not how they would describe themselves. They would describe themselves as shop-owners, guitar teachers, garden fence makers etc. Some of them would think about advertising for maybe 30 minutes in a given week. Our referring to them as “advertisers” lead to a certain kind of blindness to the reality of who our users were. By thinking of them as advertisers, we didn’t keep an open mind to the diversity and reality of the people who were using our products.

Your customer’s reality is different than yours, so learn to identify your hidden assumptions

You are missing things because of your frame of reference. That’s not a bad things, that’s just reality. But if you’re aware of that fact you can intentionally work towards discovering bits of information that you otherwise wouldn’t know to look for. Benefits of developing that sensitivity is that you develop a new sensitivity to discovering aspects of your users’ every day experience.

You have a unique access to learn about your users’ experience – be the user researcher

No one else is having the conversations you are. You talk (whether it’s phone, email or chat) to users at so many different points in their lifecycle as users of your product. And each of those conversations is an opportunity to take the conversation a little further. Some of this new information you can glean from what users are already telling you. Other things you can get at by asking a simple question over the course of a conversation. User researchers look for a variety of things when they study a culture or a social group: artefacts, language, what time is spent on, relationships. When talking to users that can translate into looking for what other tools they use, how they themselves describe the work they’re doing, when they’re busy and when they’re not, who they work with inside their company or outside.

Help the rest of your company do better work based on what you learn

Are users talking about other products they use? That is information that will be relevant to your product team for possible integrations, and to your marketing team for cross-promotion or channel partnerships.

Constantly developing your understanding of your users is valuable for what you’re working on right now and is a skillset that will benefit your career regardless which direction you choose to go in.

User Research and Support: Do you really know your users?

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