I just got back from spending 2 days in the field (literally), observing and talking to farmers about how they interact with software. We’re spending the first few weeks of this new project excavating the truth by observing with our own eyes.
Before we go out to observe users, we talk to people inside the client’s organization. They frame up the problem, often paint a pretty confident picture of the way things are, and explain what should happen next. It’s not unusual for this picture to appear fairly narrow in scope — something to the effect of, “We feel like we’ve got a lot of this figured out, and now we just need help with the user experience (i.e. user interface).” The picture also asserts a certain view of the user, and supposes to portray them fairly well.
And it’s great that the client has recognized that there’s a need for UX help. It’s why they called in a User Experience design company. No matter what off-kilter perception there may be of what is needed in the way of UX, it’s usually possible to effectively refocus those expectations.
But what you can’t do is design successful software based on faulty personas. It still amazes me what a different story we can encounter when we go observe people doing their work or talking through their challenges. When clients tell me that they know their customers, and are in contact with them regularly, I don’t doubt their sincerity. But relationships are complicated, and it’s only natural that the client/customer relationship may not be entirely open. Both sides can unwittingly tuck away important feelings and facts.
Research in the software design space is nothing new, though it is enjoying a steep rise in popularity — and for good reason. There is so much that users don’t articulate through plain conversation. Going to the place where they work and observing their environment allows designers to discover not only how the user works in the context of their workplace, but also the environment itself and all those ancillary and atmospheric details that the user would never think to mention.
Go to the field. There is so much more you can discover.