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Observing uses – the 1st step in Design Thinking

Observing uses – the 1st step in Design Thinking

A new continuing education module

After the era of all things technological, an increasing number of companies and local authorities are now coming back to the starting point of any product/service: their users. To achieve this, it is essential to observe them carefully to analyze their behavior, decision-making processes and actions. To reflect this change, L’École de design is creating a nouveau module de formation continue “Observing and understanding users”. Here’s the lowdown on this training program with course leader Yannick Primel, Ethnologist and UX Expert.

Why this return to user observation?

A lot of projects are committed to delivering a finished product which functions perfectly, leaving the users to contend with technical constraints or inconsistencies in the procedure. But what we’re seeing today is that the added value is no longer in the technology but in the attention paid to its use, the way in which a product is designed to make it user-friendly. The fact that the product is technically functional goes without saying. But does it really correspond to the particular use that I need it for, in the typical circumstances that I use it? To answer that question, we have to go back to basics: the user. Observing the user, analyzing the finer details of their real life – that’s where User eXperience comes from. In a way, it’s a form of respect for the customer or citizen which people had lost sight of.
A common way of designing a product or a service is to call upon representatives or experts who speak on behalf of users, and that’s how people think we can understand them. But who has actually been to see the user? UX observation seeks to bridge this gap between belief and actual knowledge. We have to accept that what we observe won’t necessarily correspond to the representations that we had up to now. Being prepared to change what we’ve been doing for years in order to provide solutions better suited to reality is a key point of UX. In other words, it’s the practical needs which dictate the technical solution to be adopted and not the other way round.

Stillness in Motion - Tomas Saraceno - SFMoma

Who should observe users?

The people in the field!
Private businesses or local authorities, the decision-makers (leaders, product managers, heads of innovation, service managers, etc) have an influence on the global strategy of the organization by allowing observation to become an indispensable prerequisite. With UX, we stop assuming and start checking. This shift towards service design and UX is particularly well illustrated by banks. Some of them have even bought design agencies to help them progress. They have agreed to rethink their products in view of sustainable profits, so to speak, in any case profits based on a long-term reality (groupe BPCE and ING Direct for example). With less rigid contracts than insurance companies for example, banks started asking themselves questions about the relevance of their products vis-à-vis an imaginary typical client. In the public service, two extremes spring to mind: the particularly efficient transformation of Ministère des Finances and, in contrast, the drama of RSI, which effectively destroyed itself through its total lack of consideration of user needs. Direct observation is the first step of the Design Thinking approach. It is the discovery phase, the tip of its double diamond. The observer is the person who gets to the heart of the reality we’re trying to understand. It’s the starting point for any organization ready to transform itself using Design Thinking.

How is this observation carried out? What is the observation field?

During the training day, one hour is spent observing a nearby location. The aim: to see how it is used and by whom. How do people inhabit the space? What does this place inspire in those who go there? What are the sticking points?
The field method is reliable as the criteria are rigorous. Ethnologists have been roaming the world for at least 150 years.
Data collection in particular should be reproducible: someone else in the same field will report comparable facts, so it is far from being “subjective”.
Broadly speaking, the data collected is primarily qualitative and direct because that is what we are there for. Note-taking, photos, videos - all kinds of media can be used. Then, where available, you can access indirect data like metadata, usage statistics, user diaries, etc. Finally, you have the “refining” phase during which the raw data is processed.
Different projects can draw on the same UX observation, since we strive to describe a user environment with its permanent features and social rituals which determine which object is used or which service is required and why those particular ones and not others. Observing teenagers in their high school is an endless source of inspiration for manufacturers of clothing, shoes and mobile phones… and of course for l’Education nationale.
A huge amount of information can be obtained in this way. Generally speaking, you always find even more than you were looking for. It’s the phenomenon of serendipity, the “gift of unexpected discoveries”.

Next, the following phases of Design Thinking can be prepared, by creating a user journey and solid personas (a fictitious person who represents a target group) who are modelled on real people in real life and no longer determined by an “expert”. An empathy map is also drawn up. The aim is to describe feelings (hot, cold, number of decibels in a place, the importance of touch, perception of wasting time, etc.) This emotional and physical data enables the project team to understand the physical sensations of a person and also to understand the effect that the innovation they are creating will have on people.


Personas example

A basis for changing an organization’s strategy?

Once they are aware of the importance of use observation, companies/local authorities can put in place procedures and internal processes to develop their skills and gain a competitive edge on an operational scale. This obviously goes hand in hand with the Design Thinking approach. Nothing should be designed, tested or delivered without having been confirmed in the field, working closely with users in the actual user environment. Of course, it is not a magic solution or a guarantee of success… it is, however, a sure way of avoiding major errors. Firstly, it avoids the “Yuck” response, and, hopefully, it creates the “Wow” factor!

But going out and meeting users is just the first step.
In order to reach its full potential, this process must be generalized and integrated into the company’s strategic planning. This means going from UX at project level to “exploratory” UX (UX Research) which helps companies base their innovation drive on empirical findings. It’s far better than moving forward blindly…
As a method, UX actually resulted from a project carried out by a micro-processor manufacturer Intel who sent out an ethnologist to discover what people were really doing in their kitchens in Europe, North Africa and the United States.
Another quick example of UX Research: after the Brexit shock, the company Ogilvy realized that its understanding of daily life in the United Kingdom was grossly distorted by its own London-based presence. Ogilvy therefore developed a program to send its project managers on regular observation trips across the country to ensure that from now on their beliefs would accurately reflect reality. For them, that meant drastically modifying their products since they now have a true understanding of their public which they didn’t previously have.