Observe Users to Avoid Alienating Them

kelly moran

By Kelly Moran
Principal Experience Researcher, projekt202

Originally published in Medium

Why do we need to observe people to learn from them? Why does a product owner need to observe her end users to discover problems? Why should a business observe its customers to uncover needs?

Can’t we just ask?

Observation is a critical part of the process of understanding people — whether they be users, customers, clients, or even friends or family. You need to experience a person’s context, with them, to really get what’s important.


Imagine aliens came down for a visit. If they asked you to tell them about your day, what would you say? You would likely start off in vaguely chronological order and tell them you wake up, get out of bed, wash up and get dressed. You might mention breakfast and, if it’s important to you, you’ll note the nutritional makeup of that meal. Then you’ll move on to the things you do after leaving your house — get in the car, buckle up, drop off children (please note that they’re yours), drive to work. You may remember now that you think they should know you locked your doors and set the security alarm. It would go something like that.

Think a little about what else you might tell them. I’ll wait.


Did you remember to include breathing? You do it all day long. It’s so much a part of your existence that you don’t usually think about. What happens when the aliens go back home and build you a habitat that doesn’t include air? In my industry, we call that a usability problem.

Whose fault would that problem be? Should you have been responsible for providing an exhaustive list of your daily needs and habits? Or should those expecting you to thrive in this new experience have been more involved in collecting the necessary data to make adoption easier?

You can’t expect people to tell you everything they need. If you ask, they’ll give you aspirational answers or focus on the things they really care about; like the kids, or the food, or the safety measures. In-context observation is what I (and many others) do to discover unarticulated and implicit needs — those things that are as natural to the user population as breathing. We want to see people filling their lungs in exasperation, or huffing out in relief. Hear the hiss of a startled response, or the sigh of contentment. We are literally looking for air.

And that’s why we can’t just ask.

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