How to Get Inside Your Users’ Heads: Lessons from UX Scotland 2013

July 5, 2013
By David Wong

Two weeks ago, the great and the good (and the very keen) of the UX community gathered together for the first UX Scotland conference. It was a chance for designers and researchers to share their thoughts on all things user-experience and how to figure out what users want.

Question Mark

There was something about it that reminded of high school. I don’t mean that it was immature. Just that a group of people were there to obsess over what essentially boils down to “What do they really think about me?”, “How do I KNOW?” and “What can I do to make them like me?” – or if you want to be a Mean Girl about it, they were trying to be easy and usable. UX Scotland had a packed schedule of different talks and workshops, so there were a lot of different answers to these questions.

I want to focus in this post on some of the tips from Paul-Jervis Heath’s session. The talk was on “What Users Don’t Say: Uncovering Latent Needs Through Contextual Design Research“, which I’d probably explain to a 5-year old child as working out what people actually want by watching them in the wild. We all know that we should be out there getting to know our customers. As Steve Blank says “Get out the building” and test your assumptions. The problem is that speaking to people doesn’t always give you the full story, so whilst things like focus groups are good for getting people’s opinions on things you don’t necessarily dig into the hidden needs that you could be addressing. At this point it is customary to wheel out Henry Ford to say “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

How do we find out what people really need then? Paul suggested a few approaches that you can use.

Diary studies

Asking people to keep a diary can track the more mundane everyday thoughts that lead to unexpected insights  -  as well as recording the expected emotional highs and lows that come to mind more immediately in an interview. The diaries can take the form of a paper diary, a video diary or a blog diary.

‘Context’ was a consistent undercurrent running through the whole conference and in this case it was to bear in mind what context people make their buying decisions in. Using the example of a new washing machine, it could be that (1) it’s an emergency because the machine has broken; (2) they’re replacing an old one; or (3) they’ve just moved into a new place. In the analysis of the data, you can then look for things like how long the buying process is and which group is the most valuable.


Shadowing is following people and observing them as they go about their day while they’re shopping or using some service. You can either recruit people beforehand and give them a task and observe them doing that, or you can ‘intercept’ and go find people where they are already (for example, in a department store).

All this real-world testing is crucial in uncovering people’s behaviour because what you want to do is find out how people shop rather than only working out how they shop online. Problems like ‘showrooming’ (going to a shop to try a product and then buying it online) wouldn’t come to light with a purely online shadowing process.

Contextual interviews

Again, this is something that takes place in the user’s own environment. Typically, contextual interviews are used in order to see how the person works when they’re carrying out their own tasks (rather than one that’s been assigned to them for a scenario, which you’ve assumed is relevant). You can get a sense of what their set-up is and what other people are around.

The ‘interview’ part of a contextual interview should really only be at the start when you want to get a bit of basic information about the person and what they’re about to do. For the most part, it’s like shadowing.

In all these methods, there should be as little interference as possible because the point is to get data. The analysis and interpretation comes afterwards so that you aren’t unduly influencing the person.

There was a whole lot more to Paul’s session, but I wanted to highlight just a few techniques that might come in handy.

I’ve already carried out some shadowing for my own startup, Plantedd, and I’ll be doing some more in other contexts so that I can get a deeper understanding of how people buy plants. It’s been very useful for me, so I hope that some of these techniques help you to develop a better product too.

The dates for the next UX Scotland will be 19 and 20 June 2014 and it’s going to be taking place at the Dynamic Earth centre in Edinburgh again. You can keep up with all the news on the Lanyrd page.