Learning to listen

Designers at Automattic have one common goal that is clearly stated in our creed:

I will never stop learning.

It’s something that I refer back to when being challenged with a new idea, work method or model of interacting with people that feels foreign to me. It’s that initial fear of being exposed to a new thing that creates a moment of anxiety and discomfort, and that leads to immediate rejection without evaluation. Whenever I get that feeling I go back to that sentence for reassurance: I shouldn’t be afraid to embrace new things, the exposure and experience will allow me to learn, grow and help others.

At Automattic we have started a process of creating our own design language by defining principles, processes and tools. In an effort to better understand and help our users we are trying to be better at discovering problems and users needs. We approach this with different methods, such as sending out surveys, performing competitive analysis and conducting interviews.

My team was given the challenge of improving the productivity and management of online stores store using WooCommerce. When faced with a challenge like this my immediate reaction was to reach out to our user base of store owners by sending out a survey. We could ask questions to determine habits, processes, and tools and quickly analyze the data to find answers. Quick and easy. After a few interactions with colleagues and with a survey ready to be sent I learned that is wasn’t the proper way to conduct research for the answers we were trying to get. Having data in volume doesn’t mean it’s quality data. The questions asked might lead to skewed results and the segment of people targeted might not know how to properly self-report. Conducting interviews was a much better tool for the answers we were looking for.

Being an introvert by nature makes me a terrible candidate to conduct interviews, so I faced this challenge with great anxiety. But going back to our creed and knowing that the exposure could only make me overcome this insecurity, I embraced the challenge.

Conducting interviews where we could interact directly, be more curious by following up with questions, and observe how people work provided much better insights and brought us closer to store owners. When solving a problem we now had a backstory to provide context.

While conducting the interviews we learned a lot more than we could by just sending out a survey. The true value is in the unusual experiences. Learning how people go about to complete specific tasks and take it into consideration to make sure a feature is suitable for the users that take the common route, but also for those 20% that do things differently. Seeking out the difference and making sure all our users are taken care of is key to building trust.

As an example, in a recent research effort we were trying to learn which stats store owners might care about in an overview page, and we concluded that this varies greatly depending on the size of the store, role of the user and knowledge about the business of running an online store. So instead of forcing a set of reports, we determined that we needed to allow the store owner to switch out reports to others that provide more insights on running the business.

As much knowledge as we might have about our products and the features we never have the full understanding of how they are truly used. Users create their own models of interacting with software, it might not be best or more efficient, but it’s the way they learned to do it and how it works for them, and the only way to learn about it is by observation. This is also possible to do by tracking behavior, but it lacks the emotional connection of why someone is performing a task in a specific way. Only by understanding their habits and motivations we can try to help and improve their issues.

Conducting interviews, although scary at first, provided such great insights and connections with our users that we don’t even need to justify why it’s necessary to start with it on a new project. We know that we will start from a better place if we are curious and listen to our users instead of assuming what they need.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.


By Zé Marques


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