What is User Research with Simon Scott.
In our latest episode of the Make Things Better podcast, we caught up with User Researcher Simon Scott.
- Simon Scott
- Apr 27 2022
Tom: Hello and welcome to Episode 18 of the Make Things Better podcast.
Today I have Simon Scott on the show and we're going to talk a bit about User Research. So thanks for coming on, Simon. How are you doing today?
Simon: I'm alright, thanks. It's a nice sunny March day, so it's quite nice for a change after all the storms and the rain and whatnot.
Tom: I know it's nice. I said something stupid last time a guest said that to me though, because I was like, 'Yes, it's amazing. I've been able to go out in just a T-shirt' and I made a big thing out of like 'Yeah it was amazing I could go out in just a t-shirt and nothing else'.
And then I watched it back and I was like wait hang on, it wasn't just a t-shirt.
Simon: Yeah well it is quite warm so...
Tom: It is quite warm but not that warm.
Simon: Well I'm glad you've put trousers on today, not that everyone else can see, of course.
Tom: This is like the weirdest start to a podcast ever, first 30 seconds in and we're on about me being naked.
Simon: Just edit it, it's fine.
Tom: No, but cheers for coming on. Do you want to start of by telling us a bit about your background and how you got into User Research?
Simon: Yeah, that's I guess a good place to start. So where to start? So yeah, so I've always had an interest in sort of design and the process of design. I went to the University of Lincoln and I did a furniture course, so I did furniture design and making.
That was my interest at the time. So that kind of cemented my view of like 'Okay, I understand the process, you know, the parts of that which are kind of research and the research parts in the design process'. So, you know, it's very similar to the tech world, which I'll bring it back to in a minute.
But we've got, you know, parts of the process which involve thinking about problems and ideating on the problem, thinking about researching the situation, prototyping and then sort of, I guess, perhaps coming up with something that's final.
But that is very much, you know, extrapolating that out, that is very much the process that we use in the sort of digital realm, if you want to call it. And so I kind of came out of university and with that in mind, there wasn't any jobs really for furniture design.
So, I mean, it's you know, it's something that a lot of people tend to do, they go to uni, they do something and they come out and do something completely different.
I did. But I've always had a real interest in technology. So that's where I kind of moved into tech. I was able to sort of demonstrate my skills during web design and things like that, which is obviously linking us up to what we're going to be talking about in a minute.
And I kind of progressed from there and managed to get a job somewhere, someone took a risk on me and was quite happy about that. And then just as I've moved through tech and design jobs, I realized that there was something kind of missing and there's a part of the process that wasn't being sort of referenced as much as it could. And that's the research part. And so that's why I wanted to kind of bring some of that into what I was doing.
And this at the time when you really had to struggle to get clients to engage with something like that, because you don't have like a tangible outcome a lot of the time, it's just kind of knowledge.
And then what you do with that knowledge is up to you. But, you know, you get clients feeling like they know their customers very well. So, you know, they know their situation, which, you know, is perhaps the case.
But do they know them in the way that they want to apply something? Well, I'm talking about tech but in any situation, you know, how well do they actually know them in the context that they want.
How well do they know their stories and what they're having to do, what they're having to deal with, what the problems are. So, yeah, it was one of them where as I moved from job to job and a lot of companies were starting to recognize this, you know, in this industry. But as I moved from job to job, I tried to kind of put a bit more effort into the research and try to sneak it in where where possible.
I was lucky enough to join the company early stages where I was able to sort of set up the design and research process, if you want. And so that was the point when I was realizing, recognizing that I really enjoyed the research part.
And that's where, you know, it was clearer to me how important it was.
Tom: So in the last 20 years or so, since you came out of uni, has sort of user research become more common and more of a part of the whole process of designing products and digital websites.
Simon: Yeah. So definitely that's the case. The attitudes have become a bit more like pro user research. Perhaps in some circumstances it gets taken too far. But I'll come to that in a moment. So since the sort of eve of GDS and how that sort of manifested itself, you know, the government digital service, it's become a bit of a poster child for the way of doing stuff in digital. And, you know, that's great because it means that, you know, even private companies are kind of looking at that in that direction and going 'Oh, maybe we should be doing something different to to make things accessible and to make things right for the situation, for the context.'.
So yeah, the attitudes have definitely shifted towards a more pro, but by that same token, you get the other side of the coin, which is people just use it to justify everything.
And a lot of the time that's not necessary. You know, you might have existing research or, you know, other ways to look at stuff. And so you can get people just kind of using it and selling it into organizations that don't necessarily need it.
Tom: Just on that note then, how do you know as a business whether you need to conduct user research or not?
Simon: It's a good question. And it's something that you can't really quantify. You know, like there's there's no magic number of how many people you should speak to.
It's all about confidence. So, how confident you feel with something. And research isn't just one stage, you can research all the way through. So you can start to go out and do interviews and ask questions like this.
I mean, it's weird being on the other side, but you can go out and ask questions and understand somebody's world and then you can kind of take your knowledge and apply that in some way.
And then if you have something like a product or service that you need to test, you can take that and test that with people. So you're kind of iterating on that and that's building that confidence about whether this thing or product or service, whatever, is right for that audience.
And you get to see some of those different threads of issues or whatever as it develops. That's probably the most appropriate way to do it. But I think it's all about the confidence, how confident you are in something, how confident an organization is with something.
And I guess it comes back to that point about, you know, some people just thinking 'Oh, we know our audience very well' and that might be the case, but that is an assumption. And so they should be testing that assumption, you know, like checking their confidence.
That's the first point, you know, the first step.
Tom: Yeah. And I suppose people and people's audiences are going to change over time as well. So even if like a business thinks 'Yeah. I know my audience.'.
Simon: Exactly yeah. And if they are marketing to a new sector or whatever. Yeah. That's all stuff that needs to be considered. Yeah. Definitely.
Tom: Yeah. So in that process then how do you go about actually conducting user research? It is a bit of a broad question that.
Simon: It is a very broad question. So it depends on your stance, so say you're early on in your process, you're thinking you might need to come up with a product or service that solves a problem, say you've got a problem.
You want to just test the boundaries of that problem and understand who it effects and things like that. That's very much like a convergent way, you sort of have to have a convergence stance at that point.
And, you know, you might have assumptions, but you need to understand if they're right and understand where they fit in with your audience and things like that. So you might start off by doing sort of interviews like this and there's other techniques and stuff like that as well that you can use.
And surveys is a good one just to kind of get a rough feel for if you can write the questions, write decent questions. I'm not going to get into the details of writing surveys now because that's a whole different...
Tom: That could be a whole podcast couldn't it.
Simon: So, yeah, I think that's probably where you start.
Tom: Do you spend a lot of time talking to people then and conducting interviews?
Simon: Yeah, I think that's probably the majority of it.
And I mean, even when you're like in your latter stages you're looking more sort of divergent and kind of thinking about how you might solve some of the problems. You're still asking questions, you know, you're still posing scenarios and things like that, which kind of get you to a point. Right.
And a lot of the time when you're sort of discovering things and and whatnot, you'll be asking questions. But, you know, in my opinion, you've got to really think about the questions you want to ask, because if you don't spend a lot of time writing the questions and thinking about them and writing them, you're not going to get out the information that you need.
Tom: So preparations a big part of it?
Simon: Yeah it's a big part of it.
Tom: Yeah, because I know you're prepared. Coming here with your notes.
Simon: Yeah. So I think that is the key, the preparation part. And there's a lot to that as well that is kind of outside housekeeping stuff. You know, in our discipline, if you want to call it that, you've got to consider like privacy, you know, data protection and stuff like that and you've got to respect people's time.
And I think that all kind of comes down to, how you ask the questions and the kind of environment you create to get the answers out that you need.
Tom: Is that like creating the right context, I've heard this word contexual recently?
Simon: Yeah, so it's not necessarily about creating the context, but earning the trust of the person, the participant. If you want somebody, a participant to trust you, you know, you need to show them respect.
I mean, the most important question you can ask in an interview is, how are you? Because that starts, that shows that you care. You've got that connection. And, you know, you need a bit of that small talk to kind of to make them feel comfortable.
Tom: I'm so glad I asked now, even in this chat. If I didn't ask I'd feel well awkward.
Simon: Yeah, exactly. The thing is, I think that's probably more important. The most important thing, not getting your answers out, it's making them feel comfortable because you can always go back to somebody if you don't feel like you've got...
If you've built that rapport, you know, they'll be honest with you and trust you. And that's what you need, when you're asking for someone's time, that's where you get the most value.
Because people start to tell you their deepest, darkest secrets. Maybe not, you know, where they've hid the body. But, you know, like in terms of a context, like if you're saying, oh, we're asking you about this product or service or thing that you use or situation, you know, they'll be more honest with you and that's what you need, you know, that gives you the ultimate value because you've unlocked something there that nobody else would have or that an organization, if they didn't go and do these interviews, they wouldn't necessarily have those.
Tom: Yeah. Yeah, I can definitely imagine that because everyone's got their own biases and there's going to be different reasons for people to not share certain things. So for me, for example, if someone was asking me questions about a product and I didn't feel fully comfortable and trusting of them, I'd be very reluctant to tell them the bad parts.
Simon: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And I mean, there's another thing about, you know, people don't always say what they mean or mean what they say. So there's other ways you can deal with that, you know, and it helps if you know a bit about the sort of psyche and the psychology of that because you can unlock certain things.
Tom: Yeah. So obviously you're talking to a lot of people and conducting a lot of interviews and asking them questions, what have you learned about human behavior and psychology?
Simon: So, what I've learned is like what I've said about, you know, people don't say what they mean. There are things that you can do to kind of, not trick people, but like tease it out. So things like if I was to give you an anecdotal or scenario. So if I was to sort of say to you, are you open to change? What's your answer going to be?
Simon: Yeah, everyone's going to answer yes, I don't think there's anyone who's going to say no because everyone likes to think of themselves as open to new things and open to change and really adaptive.
But that's not telling me anything. You know, I don't want to know what you think about what you would say. I want to know what you think or how you would feel in this situation.
So I might give you a scenario and say if I was to do something that would change how you behave or change what you do. And I ask you how you feel about that. So I'm not asking you whether you're open to change, I'm ascertaining that from asking you a series of other questions, you know, to get there myself. And so that's one of the ways you can kind of use a bit of psychology to kind of get around that.
I think the other thing is as well as and this is a pro tip, by the way, don't go in with the big questions straight away because again, this comes back to the trust thing you kind of take stepping stones and take people there.
But also, it helps if you know a bit about the mental models like the mental state people are in and whatnot, you can ask a series of questions to kind of get them there so that when you want to land that big question, they're in that frame of mind.
You know what I mean? They are back in that place. And so they can kind of unlock, you can unlock that thinking. And again, like, you know, the trust thing and the honesty thing that comes comes along with that.
Tom: Have you ever had any situations where people are sort of unwilling to share as much as you'd want them to if that makes sense?
Simon: You do get it. Yeah, but you've just got to not push because people shut down, you know? You can kind of detect it sometimes, you know what I mean? So you can kind of see from their emotions on their face if you're like this (Opens hands to show we are having an interview in person).
I mean, even online, like if they've got their camera on, sometimes that's not the case. So it's harder to pick up. But facial expressions are really useful because, you know, you get these twitches or frowns and whatnot if you are sort of touching on a nerve a little bit and it's yeah, it's one of those things where you've just got to tread carefully and you might have to go round in a loop you know.
If you think you've built that trust to a certain level and you're recognizing, oh, hang on, they're a bit reluctant, they haven't, you might have to sort of try something else and get there some other way. So there's a bit of thinking on your feet, but, yeah, it definitely happens, you know.
So they don't know you right, a lot of the time. So the only introduction you might have had is through email. So they've got no reason to trust you. They've got no reason to tell you what they think. And sometimes you need to respond to that and respect that and just kind of and it comes back to the privacy thing as well.
You know, you can write any documents and contracts and whatever about privacy, but at the end of the day, this is somebody, I mean you might have some quite sensitive things that you are talking about because it depends on the project. Right.
But, yeah, you're sort of looking them in the eye and sometimes asking them quite intimate things about what they think about certain things. And, you know, there's a whole other thing about people thinking about well I might lose my job if I say this and things like that.
So you've got to kind of respect that and remind them that everything's anonymous and things like that.
Tom: So on that point of sensitivity, let's say I've got like a personal problem, whatever it may be and I'm not happy about the situation. And in my job I am meant to conduct User Research on that sensitive topic but that topic's sensitive to me as well. Do you think that person should still go ahead or not?
Simon: It's tricky. it depends on the scenario.
Tom: Yeah it depends.
Simon: Yeah so the thing around that is, you know. There's certain situations where you kind of feel like it might be going that way and you kind of have to step out of it. And, you know, I've got kids. It might not seem relevant to this, but, you know, I've spoken to probation officers before who are experts in sexual offenses and stuff like that.
And, you know, they speak to child sex offenders. And obviously, I'm once removed from them. But you know, some of the things they tell you about and the situations they are in and it hits you harder because I can relate to it a bit more.
And so you know, although it's not quite the same thing. There is a bit of that like I've got an opinion on that and so yeah, it's very hard.
You have to sort of separate yourself from things like that. But if you feel uncomfortable doing it, then yeah, I guess you shouldn't do it. There's always another person that can do it or you ask different things, you know.
Move the topics away and it's the same from the other way around if somebody's not comfortable with something you're asking, you know, you've got to respect that.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. So how do you avoid your own biases as well when interpreting what someone is saying?
Simon: Yeah, I think the the best way to do it is think about all the things that could introduce bias to start with.
Simon: Be conscious of it. And recognize when it's happening. I mean, you can introduce bias into research just by speaking to people in a certain age bracket more than in another age bracket for example.
Because you're sort of biasing your research into that older age bracket, say. But, you know, being conscious of that is the main point. That's how you kind of have to mitigate that because obviously you try to balance it out, but sometimes you don't get that luxury. Like if you're working quite quickly or you've got to be safe, you've got a participation panel or somebody is going out and recruiting for you.
They might not be able to get access to a balanced gamut of people. So you might have to rely on that, you get what you're given kind of thing.
And so in that respect, you just have to be conscious of it and be mindful that, okay, when I'm when I'm looking for patterns, which is, you know, that's what the analysis part is about. It's about looking for patterns and trends and stuff.
When I'm looking for that stuff. Is that going to affect anything? You know, is the fact that I've only got, you know, 70% of this age bracket, and 30% of this age bracket. Is that going to affect my analysis.
Tom: Yeah. So my final question for you is a bit more abstract and you can interpret it however you like.
Simon: I know this was coming.
Tom: What can people do to make things better?
Simon: Right. So what I'd say, and this is, I guess this is practical because I know this is the big question you ask at the end of all of these. And so I've been thinking about it quite a lot and I know I'm probably cheating a bit, but I think if I answer in a more practical way, I think just go out and do research, do more, do what you can, and I know it's very on brand, but I think it's important, especially if can't afford to do it. You know, that's probably the most important time to do it.
Tom: Can't afford to do what?
Simon: You know, to pay someone to go and do research. If you don't have the resources to do it, it's probably the most important time to do it. And anyone can do it because, you know, anyone can ask questions. Obviously it takes a bit of skill and practice to kind of get good at writing questions in a certain way that give you certain answers. And like all of the stuff we discussed earlier about getting to a certain point and taking the participant on the journey with you to to get your answers.
But, you know, anyone can ask questions. We're taught to do it from a very young age, you know, when we're asking for bits of fruit or whatever as a toddler kind of thing. You know, say 'please'. So, I think getting out and doing doing research and asking those questions and kind of building your confidence in an area, that can make things better because you get to know people. And you know, I'm not necessarily talking just about people that use a product or service that you might be developing.
There's other merits in, for example, working on small talk because that helps in the trust side of things, you know, and if you can develop that sort of side of things as well, ask those questions, you can be asking about the weather.
Like you did, the weather. We talked about the weather today. It made me feel a lot more comfortable, so thanks for that.
Tom: I did have quite an embarrassing story to share, always helps.
Simon: Yeah exactly. And so I think just anyone can do it. Yes, it takes skill to get to get it right, but just asking questions and understanding things a bit more can make things better.
Tom: Yeah. And I guess that is a skill, as you say, that you're going to learn and improve on and you might not be perfect at it at first.
Simon: And it's free, it doesn't cost any money to actually go and ask questions. You might spend a bit of money if you can't get access to your audience in the right way, you might have to get a recruitment agency to go and look for those people.
Tom: Could you even start with like just asking friends and family as well?
Simon: You could, if that's appropriate. Yeah. I mean, when I sort of started out, that's how we'd might do stuff. You know, if we've got something that somebody would use or could use.
Yeah, shove it under their nose and sort of say it's like a second opinion on stuff sometimes. And that might be just enough to kind of give you that bit more confidence about stuff. You need that critique.
The problem with friends and family is that they can be a bit more, what's the word? I guess, respectful.
Tom: Yeah, it depends what family you have.
Simon: They might be cautious about offending you.
Simon: Yeah, that's another point as well to like not take offense to it because obviously you're improving, if you've got something you want people to use, if you're going to get so attached to it that you take offense to it, you won't change it. You know, that's not likely to be successful as well, because it needs to be appropriate for your audience.
Tom: Sounds to me, I'd say one of the main things I've taken away from this podcast and I've taken quite a lot because I didn't have much knowledge of user research before this, but it's that as a User Researcher you have to be quite rational and objective and process-led and not emotional.
Simon: Yeah, there is a bit. Yeah you practice your poker face quite a bit. But yeah I think that's right.
Yeah. So for example if you're doing like a usability test or something like that, there's always that temptation to shout 'The buttons there!' you know what I mean? But you've got to like, you know, because it's about how they react to stuff.
It's about how how they kind of interpret things. And that's useful information because then you can kind of take that and use it as insight to kind of develop an idea further or to develop a prototype further or something like that.
So yeah, you're right.
Tom: It's kind of patience as well.
Simon: Patience, definitely. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Bite your tongue kind of thing because it's not about your opinion.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, so thanks so much for coming on. Where can people find you and your website as well?
Well, how you found me on Twitter is probably the most direct way. So at @simonjs on Twitter, and I'm very proud of my domain name that I managed to get for quite cheap when Google started selling them it's Research.how
Tom: Yeah that is good.
Simon: So yeah that's got all the links on. It's not been updated for a very long while.
Tom: I checked it out and it looked good to me.
Simon: Yeah well there you go, it's stood the test of time.
Tom: Alright well, thanks so much for coming on. Thank you for watching or listening (Or reading). And I do hope you have an amazing rest of your day.
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