GoPro's Helmet Hero for capturing the user's experience from the first-person perspective.
When I began my career as a design researcher, a significant proportion of my time was spent convincing clients that they could best identify their customers' needs by listening to and observing them in context. Fortunately, many successful organizations are now doing this and many have their own design research groups. In fact, product development teams now face the new challenge of interpreting and acting on the vast quantities of customer information they are now capturing.
Tracking online customer behavior has created a huge amount of data to be mined and analyzed. But when it comes to understanding offline, real world behavior, researchers typically use contextual methods such as ethnographic studies and user interviews. These methods are effective, but time-consuming.
Ever-searching for better methods over the years, I have tested out and adapted several high-tech products for user research. While none of these products were specifically intended for customer research purposes, they each have valuable features that make capturing the customer's perspective accurately and efficiently.
While observing behavior is essential for identifying consumers' unrecognized needs, conducting verbal interviews is still the bread and butter of research. What customers say (and don't say), and how they say it, provides valuable feedback. Verbal information is typically captured by note-taking and audio recording, which can then be transcribed to text.
A great solution for recording interviews is the Livescribe Pulse, a pen-based computer that is primarily targeted at assisting students with note-taking. It's best understood by watching the video below (really, it will make much more sense), but in simple terms the pen records audio and also synchronizes the audio to what you are writing on special note-paper.
Besides being an unobtrusive audio recorder, the Pulse allows you to pay more attention to the interviewee when note-taking, and enables you to jump to points of interest by tapping on your notes post-interview. For user interviews, the researcher can quickly reference notes directly back to the audio of interviewees' words for clarity and idea expansion. For ethnographic observations, both conversations and environmental sounds can be unobtrusively recorded (even in stereo).
Observational research is a powerful method for understanding unspoken consumer behavior. The video camera is a fundamental tool for user research as recording a user interacting with a product can reveal how the product actually used, as opposed to how it was designed or is expected to be used. But watching someone is not the same as experiencing it through their own eyes.
GoPro, pictured above, produces a range of digital cameras marketed to sports enthusiasts. Consequently, the cameras are durable, and portable, even wearable. The cameras can be mounted in various ways, such as to a helmet, worn on the wrist or attached to a product itself. As a result, first-person experience can be visually documented. The cameras can also be set to take still images at fixed intervals (e.g. every five seconds), an effective method for documenting and studying the key steps in long duration tasks.
The benefits to product developers are revealed in ways that might not be obvious via traditional observation. For example head-mounted cameras were utilized in one research study on tool use. The videos revealed that the volunteer participants were actually looking away from the tool far more than expected during use, inspiring potential design improvements for safety and efficiency.
In some cases, it is useful to know not only what users are doing, but how much or how frequently over the course of days or weeks. For example, an outdoor products company may be interested in how much time and energy people spend using their product compared to competitors' products. Human physical activity is complicated to measure, particularly outside of the laboratory, and so diverse that a single technological solution is not available But there are some technologies that can be applied to consumer research. For example, the just released Fitbit is a wearable motion sensor that records variables including distance traveled, steps taken and calories burned. Fast Company recently reviewed a similar product, the Philips DirectLife. When used in the context of a well defined research protocol, these devices can automate data collection, saving time and delivering quantitative information on consumer activities.
The Fitbit is a wearable 3-D motion sensor to track information about physical activity.
Each of these high-tech devices can capture valuable information about the customer perspective and experience. But these are just tools and must be used appropriately and combined with insightful thought and creativity to go from data, to solutions.
Rob Tannen is an expert in designing products, interfaces and systems that accommodate the complexities of human behavior and capabilities. He has researched cockpit interfaces for U.S. Air Force, designed trading floor order systems for the New York Stock Exchange, and created touch screen applications for consumer appliances. Along the way he has developed a unique, multidisciplinary skill set for understanding how people interact with technology, which integrates expertise in ergonomics, ethnographic research, usability and information design. He has a PhD in human factors and is a Certified Professional Ergonomist. Rob is Director of User Research and Interaction Design at Bresslergroup, the award-winning product development firm. He collaborates with designers and engineers on a range of consumer, medical and commercial projects. The firm specializes in interaction & industrial design, and mechanical innovation.