Monthly Archives: October 2007

Understanding real user requirements is important

Organisations are generally good at identifying business requirements, but most aren’t good at understanding user requirements or at using these to inform their solutions.

Techniques such as usability testing are excellent for bringing user involvement into the refinement of a solution, but by the time a prototype is available to usability test, it is often too late to make substantial changes.

Also the sheer act of developing a prototype, however low-fidelity it is, shapes the way people think about other potential solutions – it defines the design space in which people think about potential solutions. But what if the user requirements not fully understood, or if they bear no relation to the perceived environment in which the solution will be used? The result could be an expensive white elephant that completely misses out on massive opportunities.

This is not an attempt to dissuade you from prototyping. Iterative prototyping and refinement is a key aspect of good design. But they should have their rightful place – i.e. after the user requirements are understood.

What is needed is a way of understanding user requirements before any design activity begins and using these to inform the business requirements.

Contextual research activities provide rich insight into user requirements

Research activities such as contextual research, interviews and diaries, each provide rich insights into current user behaviour.

These will identify:

  • Current user behaviour
  • How existing solutions fit into current user behaviour
  • Activities currently enjoyed by users that the new solution should not change.
  • Activities that users find frustrating.

These insights can challenge business assumptions, add weight to or dispel hunches, and bring depth to the definition of the requirements document.

Don’t fear the unknown

Many project teams have difficulty comprehending or justifying these early stage user research activities. This may be because it is impossible to predict exactly what they are going to discover, but this is exactly why they are so important. Only by understanding existing behaviour, frustrations and pleasures can the best solution be identified.

It is only natural to crave processes that are familiar and comprehensible, but refining a prototype through usability testing can only take you so far. Early stage customer insights help organisations think completely differently about a problem space, enabling them to develop solutions that aren’t simply ‘me to’ imitations of the market leaders in their chosen industry.