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7 Tips for Working with Product Users

Disclaimer: I’m not a usability expert. I have no formal training in this area. My learnings have all been empirical.

My tips come from having spent a good deal of my life field testing products and managing teams that have field tested products. The products range from electro-mechanical devices to software tools and applications. These products were tested in environments that range from hundreds of feet beneath the ocean (Submarine Weapons Delivery Systems), to Retail Point of Sales (Electronic Article Surveillance products).

Usability Tip 1: Listen to Users

Really listen. Listen actively. Ask open ended questions. Avoid questions that are designed to confirm your previous beliefs. This I’ve found to be the most difficult. We all want to be right. We all want to affirm our pre-conceived notions. This is not the point of listening. The point is to learn new information that can help make your product more successful.

I believe Mark Cuban hit the nail on the head when he said, “Your customers can tell you the things that are broken and how they want to be made happy. Listen to them. Make them happy. But don’t rely on them to create the future road map for your product or service. That’s your job.”

Usability Tip 2: Observe Users

This is an important, often missed, and sometimes expensive to capture data point. It’s critical though. If nothing else, this is where you learn what your users are actually doing. It’s been my observation that many users don’t know why they do what they do. In some cases, they’re even too embarrassed to tell you what they do. So guess what? They don’t. This means if we only listen to them, we can miss out on what actually is happening.

Several years ago, I made an emergency visit to a customer retail site where a handheld point of sale device was breaking at an alarming rate. I watched from a couple of checkout lanes away as a Sales Representative took our electro-mechanical handheld device and began using it as a hammer. Lesson learned: If you don’t want your product used as a hammer, don’t make it remotely resemble one. This would have been an almost impossible failure mode to troubleshoot over the phone.

Visual observation also allows pain points to be more visible. It can become obvious when something is confusing or difficult to use when you can observe a user’s hesitations, facial reactions and emotions. These can be tricky to collect via other methods of interviewing.

Usability Tip 3: Mine User Data for Gems

Especially for software web-based products, there are a host of tools that can be used to gain valuable insights into your users behaviors. There’s a wide variety of data tracking solutions ranging from free products like Google Analytics Event Tracker, to paid options like Heap and Pendo. These can help you answer questions about your own software products such as:

Which features are most popular among your customers?

How much time are they spending interacting with your software?

How frequently are they using your software?


Usability Tip 4: Don’t Do What Users Say

Users are exceptionally valuable and usually well-qualified at knowing that problems exist. Frequently, okay, almost always, they will not only tell you the problem but they will be compelled to share with you a solution. Depending on the level of influence that the user has, they may even demand that their solution is implemented. Resist this temptation at all costs!

Besides risking sub-optimal solutions, if you implement what a user tells you to, you are potentially trading off fixing a problem at the expense of creating an even more serious problem. Remember that the user is only trying to get their problem fixed. They are usually not thinking about any problems that their “fix” could create. That’s the design team’s job. Therefore, it’s imperative that instead of communicating solutions, it’s important to be stating the problem clearly so an optimal solution can be developed. You’ll find that when you allow your Designers, UX experts, Developers and Engineers the ability to come up with the solutions, they will find more robust and usable answers to the problems being reported.

Usability Tip 5: Pain = Opportunity

When listening and observing your users, look for the pain points. Pain means opportunity. Opportunity means there’s a need. Solving customers’ needs usually has value that can be monetized.

Sounds simple? I’ve found this is one of the most difficult principles to put to practice. Why? Once again, people don’t want to be wrong. More particularly, smart people who’ve been working tirelessly on developing products that may be difficult to use really hate being wrong. How often have you heard these responses to reported usability problems? “They’re using it wrong.” “It wasn’t meant to do that.” “That’s not how it works.” For product development companies, those responses should actually sound like a cash register ringing because it means there are opportunities to make your products better.

Usability Tip 6: Empathy is the Secret Sauce

At every step of the usability communication process, empathy is a key factor to success. Users want to feel that you not only understand what they’re experiencing but also what they’re feeling. Try to take into account all of the pressures and constraints your users may be under. Perhaps they’re being measured by some quantity or time-based KPI. By showing genuine empathy for their struggles, it’s been my experience that they’ll open up and share more freely. Even more important, they’ll welcome you back. This can be critical in the case of an important customer who has to make some concessions and even inconveniences to participate in your test processes.

Show empathy with your design team as well. No one wants their baby to be called ugly. Share the facts with your development teams but frame the problems that you report positively as the opportunities that they truly are.

To quote Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Usability Tip 7: Change for the Better and Continuously Improve

Listening, observing, studying, and empathizing with users won’t make your products any better unless you follow through and act on what you learn. Prioritize opportunities and implement changes to improve your products. Close the loop when possible by thanking and showing users that their feedback and participation has made a difference.