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User research and behaviour

Understanding how users complete a service and their pain points, can give you a real insight into what you need to provide. This page looks at user interviews, user behaviour and user testing.

User research interviews

Interviews help you learn more about different types of users, their circumstances, how they use a service and what they need from it to get the right outcome for them.

  • First, think about who your users are. For example, if you are working on an application for a free bus pass for a child going to secondary school, your users will probably be parents or guardians of children in primary school. These are the people that you need to find.
  • If you are working on a service which is used by a range of people, you can look for users in your own workplace. Ask for volunteers – for people who are going to use this service or who have used it already.

You’ll also need to prepare questions for your users. To understand their needs, you will need to find out about every stage of their journey. You can ask them questions to find out:

  • what your users currently do
  • what the difficulties with their current journey are

You can learn a lot by asking the right questions.

Imagine you were working on a service that allows people to find out when their bins are collected. Look at the questions below. Which ones do you think are good questions to ask your users? Why?

  1. Do you find it frustrating to find the information at the moment?
  2. How do you find the information at the moment?
  3. Do you use the website to find information about bin collection?
  4. What information do you need to know about bins?
  5. Would you like a service which added a calendar reminder to your email account about bins?
  6. What does your local council recycle?

Good questions

Questions 2 and 4 can help you learn about what users do now. They are open questions which can be followed up with prompts.

Questions that can be problematic

Questions 1, 3, 5 and 6 are all structured in a way that can limit a user’s response.

  • Question 1 is a leading question. It suggests that the service is frustrating. It’s much better to use an open-ended question. For example: ‘How would you describe how you feel about the service?’ Or you could watch people use the service and look for signs of how they feel.
  • Question 3 has a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response so will limit a user’s response. If they say ‘no’, then you don’t know what they do use. If they say ‘yes’, it may be because you specifically asked, and there may be other ways users find the information instead but they won’t tell you what they are.
  • Question 5 is not a good question because it offers a solution and asks for an opinion on it. The question should not influence the user, and the solution should come from a clear understanding of the user need.

Question 6 is testing users’ knowledge, which is not the purpose of a user research question.

You might identify pain points from:

  • user interviews (questioning),
  • user testing (observation),
  • feedback or contact centre enquiries.

Pain points are where users have difficulty during their online journey. This means they come up against issues which slow down, misinform, or hinder them. pain point could stop users completing critical tasks or finding information. We need to identify these pain points and understand the underlying problem. Rather than focusing on symptoms.

We might understand there are issues after user interviews, or from customer feedback. but we often identify pain points by observing tasks and interactions or analytics.

For example. We had feedback that customers were struggling to find information on our website about emergency alarms. These are used to call for help in the event of a fall at home.

  • We were asked to make the information on alarms more prominent.
  • However further investigation showed that customers were using different terminology. Customers were searching for ‘lifelines’ - an alternative name for the alarms.

By adapting our online language, we were able to make sure the right information was found more easily. We also need to understand the audience - who they are, their needs and state of mind? For example, were they anxious? Did this affect their behaviour?

This should include:

  • your introduction script to tell the participant who you are, explain the research and remind them about things like the interview being recorded
  • the interview topics, including starter and follow-up questions, and instructions for any activities
  • a planning checklist, to make sure you will have everything you need on the day

You can use your discussion guide to:

  • stay on track during interviews
  • make sure interviewers cover the same topics so participants have a consistent experience
  • review interview sessions with your team
  • maintain a record of what you do in each round of research

You should also interview the service or stakeholder. These questions will be structured differently.

  • Describe your audience?
  • What do you want the user to do?
  • What do you think the user needs to know to complete that task?
  • What else must the user be made aware off?
  • Do you have any statutory requirements
  • Can you walk me through your process on....

Putting the two interviews together will help you to understand any gaps, or how to get what the service needs, but still considering the user needs.

User behaviour

Human beings can process, store and retrieve information, in order to make rational decisions. However evidence suggests up to 95% of human behaviour happens subconsciously using 'system 1'. We are susceptible to cognitive bias, and we rely on mental shortcuts (heuristics) to speed up decision-making.

Dual process theory

Psychologists believe that we have two ‘systems’, or ways of thinking and making decisions. These two systems – ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’ – are led by distinct parts of the brain that don't consult with each other.

System 1:

  • is fast
  • is mostly involuntary
  • is automatic
  • uses intuition, instinct, emotions and
  • uses little effort to make decisions

Our brains are thought to have evolved to use System 1 first, to give us the tools for survival. It allows us to spot, assess and react to threats quickly.

However System 1 can lead us to jump to conclusions.

We use System 1 to:

  • identify an angry face or tone of voice
  • drive a car on an empty road (if we are confident drivers)
  • jump out of the way of a speeding car

It is thought that System 2 evolved in our brains more recently and uses conscious reasoning. System 2:

  • is usually slower
  • is unemotional
  • involves more effort than System 1

We use System 2 to:

  • compare specifications of a washing machine
  • park in a tight parking space
  • fill out detailed forms

There are various models which support dual process theory. There is more information in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Implications when reviewing or developing our website

It is hard to get an accurate response when considering a hypothetical situation. For example when we want to improve our web content. If we ask people what they would like to see on a website, they will think and give a rational answer using System 2.

  • Customers may not always be able to tell you what they need, because when they interact with a website they may be driven by their subconscious using System 1.
  • When asked about what they want, and they respond using system 2, we are not consulting with System 1.

If Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, had asked people what they want, they may have said ‘faster horses.’

If a customer tells us “I would have clicked that button if it was bigger and brighter”, the only thing we know is that they didn't click the button.

A user explained how we could improve the navigation menus and landing page to make them more engaging. But during the user test, went straight to the search bar to go to the page.

  • In answering questions people bend the truth to be closer to what they think you want to hear or what's socially acceptable.
  • In telling you what they do, people are really telling you what they remember doing. Human memory is very fallible, especially regarding the small details that are crucial for interface design. Users cannot remember some details at all.
  • In reporting what they do remember, people rationalise their behaviour.
  • The interviewee may not have a strong view, but feel they need to say something to show they have contributed in some way.
  • They may be influenced by what they know and have already experienced, rather than what is possible in context, this can be limit progress.
  • If a user tells us about new features they would like to see, it doesn’t mean they would then use those features if they were available.

User testing

To understand user experience issues, we need another style of consultation. We need one that is better at involving System 1. ‘User testing’ is a type of research using situational tests. It can provide more natural insight into user behaviour. It works by observing what users are doing, and only asking questions which encourage a user to share their thoughts, feelings and decisions.

User testing is most useful in the alpha, beta and live phases to test prototypes or the service you’ve built. You can also use it in the discovery phase to learn about problems with an existing service.

Basic rules of usability testing

  • Try to observe behaviour rather than listening to what people say.
  • Be aware that statements on intended future behaviour may not match actual behaviour.

To discover how to improve content and design, or reduce pain points:

  • watch users as they attempt to perform tasks
  • ask them to share their thoughts (what are you looking for?) to gain insight into their goals and state of mind.
  • don’t focus only on the results of a particular task, observe everything. A user may not arrive on your page, or they may have a different motivation. You might want them to find an online form, but they might be looking for a telephone number!
  • don’t make suggestions, provide feedback, or solutions. There is no right or wrong when observing user behaviour
  • record the session if possible. Even an experienced researcher may rationalise a user’s behaviour when recording the notes. Or on review they may spot where they have influenced the user by accident.

You need to design test tasks carefully to make sure they answer your research questions. Good test tasks:

  • set a clear goal for participants to try and achieve
  • are relevant and believable to participants
  • are challenging enough to uncover usability issues
  • do not give away ‘the answer’ or hint at how a participant might complete them

You may have one long or complex task that you want to research but it’s more common to give users several smaller tasks.

User experience and testing is quite complex and difficult to master.

Detailed information on user testing and usability from Adobe.

Moderated user testing - GOV.UK

Influencing user behaviour (Mindspace)

We can influence some online behaviour with website content and functionality. This includes:

  • how we present search results
  • which ‘related information’ we add to a page
  • webpage design

MINDSPACE is a behavioural science tool that was founded by leading psychologists and economists. It is a checklist for anyone wishing to change or influence behaviours, using nine main ways that automatic thinking influences behaviour. MINDSPACE can be an effective tool for ‘demand management’.

  • Messenger – we are heavily influenced by who communicates information. Authority / trust / similarity to us.
  • Incentives - our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses.
  • Norms - we are strongly influenced by what others do.
  • Default – we ‘go with the flow’ of pre-set options.
  • Salience – our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us.
  • Priming - our acts are often influenced by our subconscious cues.
  • Affect – our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions.
  • Commitment – we seek to be consistent with our public promises and reciprocate acts.
  • Ego - we act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves

The above nine points are explained in much more detail along with more of the theory and research in the Mindspace document by the Institute for Government.