When users tell you that you’re focusing on the wrong thing – listen to them

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Part of me wonders if I should say this, but…I love it when user research goes wrong. 

Sometimes you go into user research with a hypothesis and the research validates it. That’s great. That’s easy. But what I really love is when you go in with a hypothesis and the research totally flips it on its head. That’s when you learn the most.  

I recently did some user research on a document that we’re using to support our new approach to helping companies. It outlines what their project is, what support Scottish Enterprise and our partners can offer them, and how we plan to measure outcomes. We went in wanting to know what companies thought about the format of the document and if there was anything about it that didn’t work for them. We hypothesized that: 

  • Some of the language wasn’t customer-focused enough, and people would be put off by it 
  • The second page of the document that lists the support that we offer would be the section that businesses would refer to the most 
  • They would prefer a digital version of the document over a paper version 

What we discovered 

Sticky notes with quotes from user testing: 'Haven't re-visited the plan', 'Document itself - never really opened it', 'It didn't really register', 'This is necessary for SE but not for me', 'I don't care what's on a piece of paper', 'I rarely write documents like this'.
Some quotes from user testing

When we asked people what they thought about the document, they said things like: 

  • “I don’t care what’s on a piece of paper.” 
  • “The document itself – I never really opened it.” 
  • “It didn’t really register.” 

They didn’t care about the document. They weren’t concerned about the wording that we used or the format that it was in. It wasn’t important to them. 

So what did matter to them? 

We wanted to talk to people about a document. They wanted to talk to us about how we helped them by bringing resources together to support their project. For them, the value wasn’t in what was on a piece of paper – it was in the conversations that they had with us.  

They told us how we helped them think about things in a different way. How we helped them explore a new area for their business. How we gave them an opportunity to talk through what they were thinking. The support that we gave them through conversations and connections was useful. The document – not so much. 

We didn’t expect that, but that’s okay. The service that we’re providing is helping people, and that’s what really matters.

We need to stop looking for validation  

Sometimes project teams ask us to do research to ‘validate’ choices that they’ve made. When they say this, it implies that they’re only really interested in research that tells them what they already believe to be true. They aren’t interested in hearing that their assumptions may be wrong, or that maybe we should stop doing what we’re doing because it isn’t what users need.  

This document is a good example of why need to be open to user research telling us things that we don’t expect to hear. That’s when things really get interesting, and when we have the greatest opportunity to make our services better. 

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