Week 2: User Research and Personas

Matt started of the week with an in-depth look at the different forms of user research; ethnographic, surveys and user interviews.  Research exists to define the goals or needs or ‘what is not being met’ for a specified group of people.  These things can occur regularly over different time frames, sporadically or at times of crisis.  It was interesting to hear that people often don’t ‘do’ what they say they do, so sometimes research can be a behavioural observation.

I took quite a few notes about surveys, since this is something I have not completed before.  It seemed as if they could be useful in collecting non emotional data where as ethnographic would be difficult to manage even though great and more truthful insights can be gleaned.  Structured interviews seemed like the best way of collecting accurate and usable user information.  Bias and consent were flagged up as issues with interviewing, it’s important to be wary of these.

It was discussed that people are often most happy to chat during ‘dead time’ i.e. while in a que or waiting for something else.  Other locations can include coffee shops, social networks, peoples homes, conferences, the pub! etc, but it really depends on the kind of data you are trying to collect. We paired up and then took 10 minutes to write some questions to find out about the other person’s on-line shopping habits, which seemed like a pretty wide topic!  I quickly came up with four questions ready to ask my table partner, one of our course tutors, Irene, observed us for a bit.  She gave us some helpful pointers;  I needed to make sure that I didn’t move on from a question too quickly if there was still room to ask ‘why’ or continue that thread in some way.  When it was my turn to be questioned I picked up on a technique my partner was using called ‘mirroring’ where she repeated back something I had said to confirm it.  In this case it worked really well because I though that she had picked up on something incorrectly and was able to point this out.  During the class chat at the end of this exercise, someone brought up that it is often good to start with the extremes of your potential user profiles, as well as a lapsed user, helpful tip!

Personas were mentioned for the first time, Irene brought up the blob tree after some discussion around what tools are or are not effective during interviews where you are helping the interviewee express them selves on a potentially difficult questions.  It was interesting that people can identify them selves as the same blob but have completely different reasons for this identification.  It is useful because it offers choice and a starting point to begin a discussion about how someone is feeling.

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Homework for this week is to carry out at least one interview for our personal projects ready to talk about with our guest speaker Paddy Long who works as a service designer at One Fine Stay. It was advised to bounce ideas for project work off a friend/ colleague before committing to it.

We briefly touched on why personas can be useful as an archetype of group users, there should be at least two, i.e. advanced and beginner.  These should not be stereotypes, but instead a collection of different responses about what is meaningful and important to certain groups, pulled from interviews, surveys and ethnographic methods.

I am glad we were asked to try out some research before hearing tips of the trade from our guest speaker.  It was encouraging to hear that interviewing should be exciting and adventurous as you have no idea where the conversation may end up, I definitely found this in my initial interviews. I am chatting about my project work in a separate post.

Paddy began his workshop speaking about why he thinks user research is so important and how he ‘got in’ to it having started out as a product designer. He summed up this introduction by saying that user research is a process by which you discover what is meaningful and important to people.

It was good to bring to focus back to what it is like to do user research as many of us in the class were undertaking this process for the first time.  He asked what the mindset of a good researcher should be…  Answers from the floor included curiosity, an open mind, an insatiable desire to learn, thoroughness and an inquisitive nature – all correct!  He added empathetic and adventurous to this list.

The next question bounced to the floor was (we had a literal ball throwing activity at the beginning of the session to wake us up!) ‘what should it feel like to do user research?’…. We came up with exciting and surprising.  Paddy added collaborative (it is more impact-full to share this task, i.e. one person writing notes and the other doing the conversation plus the opportunity to compare/ validate insights etc after), messy (it is best to just accept it and move on if things don’t go to plan) and inspiring.  I certainly felt most of these emotions during my first interview.  I would have appreciated the opportunity to be collaborative a bit more.

The goal of user research is to glean an accurate and deep understanding of something or someone, these gleanings are called insights.  Spotting these can sometimes take time and the process will become easier the more experienced one gets.  A good example given about the difference between an insight and an observation is:

  • Observation People want faster horses (talking pre-car here)
  • Insight People want to travel faster

We were again asked why we though a good insight should look like, we came up with – ‘a lead to a solution’, actionable, a pain point…  This was perhaps better summed up buy user focussed, not immediately evident (but then clunks in to place), short sticky and simple, new news, a lead to a clear opportunity.

This all seemed a bit overwhelming and a bit like an it could feel as if you were invading someone’s personal space. I was glad when a member of my class asked the question, how many insights are useful – Paddy’s next slide in fact covered this.

”One good insight can change the world!”


In general quality not quantity, deep not wide and 5-7 good insights are more than enough.  So as an individual I will just have to get over the anxiety that comes with asking difficult/ awkward questions.  This sort of investigation is key if you want to get to the root of an issue.

It is important to ‘design your research’ and firstly brainstorm ‘who’ you want to meet.  Next, work out ‘how’ you want to do the research, Paddy said:

”There are no rules, so make it fun, try to combine observation and conversation.  Put yourself out there and don’t be shy!”


It is important to brainstorm what you want to ask people and why.  It is useful and pretty essential to synthesise the most important questions.  Paddy outlined that to get the most out of user interviews its best to memorise your ‘discussion guide’ and most importantly the ‘key questions’ in order to execute the best and most natural interview where all the main points are covered but you don’t cut someone off by paying more attention to a piece of paper than what they are saying.  Again two brains during the interview rather than one is better as you can compare notes after to see if there were any shared insights. Paddy’s interview tool kit included:

interview tool kit

Conversation techniques:

  • Intro your project
  • Help the interviewee to open up (tell me about yourself)
  • Be naive and open
  • Put the discussion guide down and explore!
  • Dig deeper and pick up on throw away comments
  • Continue to ask ‘why?’ (tell me about that)
  • Listen out for quotes

Mini download after:

  • You learn as much after the interview as you do during
  • Talk it through with a friend (even if they couldn’t be there)
  • Play Post-it snap
  • Write down your top-5 on post-its
  • Organise your thinking
  • Write up and share your notes

Paddy split then us up in to groups of 5 to do a story telling activity, we each had 3 minutes to talk though one of the interviews i.e. tell a story about what we had learnt first hand during the week, while the rest of the group recorded any questions that occurred to them or indeed insights on to post it notes to share after.  This is a process  which is good to do in front of a group at the initial stages of a project, specifically stake holders!   I went first; I found the experience pretty terrifying, and felt that I hadn’t been very clear.  Never the less I got some useful feedback and the group gave me their notes at the end:

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