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Doing User Research When You Have No Access to Your Users

For the 12+ years that I have worked at my company I have had extremely limited access to users. I’ve only made 3 branch visits over that time and what little access I have had, has been reserved for usability testing the applications I was working on. And, when branch visits are set up UX is usually the last person considered as a candidate to go.

But when you are starting a project you need to know who you are designing for. What do you do? Covert user research! Believe it or not there are a lot of ways for you to find out about people without talking to them directly.

Find User Representatives

User representatives are people who are not the user, but may have been the user at some point in their career. Sometimes your business representatives can be user representatives if they did the job. I would give a word of caution here. While your business representative may have worked “in operations”, they are also heavily invested in the business goals of the company. So, you really don’t want to go too deep with them, especially if their experience is 10 or more years away from the people who do the job now. But they are usually a good source of information about average age of users, turnover rate and what the environment is like that users work in.

Look for people within your company who have recently been promoted from your operations who did the job. They can give you the closest idea of mentality, environment and real life process (vs. expected process). When you talk to these people it’s important to get to their memories of what they were like, what their goals were and how technical savvy they were at the time, etc. This is the person you will get your user’s motivation from.

Scour Employee Lists and Do Internet Searches on Them

Your goal is to find a good-sized list of people who are doing the job and who will end up using your tool. Start in Outlook. Most companies using Outlook use Active Directory making the company’s hierarchy available through Outlook contact information. If you’re lucky, there will be pictures of people, too. If you don’t have this list, see if you can get a list out of your training software or from somed sort of office directory.

Once you have a list, then research them on Facebook and LinkedIn. Facebook will give you personal information. LinkedIn will give you education and experience. If you can’t find a person in one place, you can usually find them in another. Remember there are other social websites out there for other areas of the world. For example, WeChat is a commonly used mobile Facebook-like app in China.

Please remember you are poking around in someone else’s life without permission. Keep your information confidential and as anonymous as possible. Don’t ask to be added to someone’s friends list or network just to be able to ask them questions directly. Not only is it a bit creepy, it’s crossing the line in trying to get around your company’s limits.

Do Generational Research

There is a LOT out there on what each generations attitudes and tendencies are. If you know that the general age of your user falls within one of the generations, go research that generation.  You can find out almost anything you want about the various generations and to some point people are very similar generationally across the world.

Generational research is good for technology usage behavior, top app and site usage and attitudes toward toward specific issues.

Scour the Job Board on Your Company Website

Job listings and descriptions are a good way to find out what the expected experience and education level of the people doing the job are. While they’re not one-hundred percent foolproof, most of the time they are representative of the kind of people who will be hired for those positions.

You may also find out some interesting situations this way. For example, I found out that a particular job task was done only by new employees. Once they were experienced enough to move into more of their actual job responsibilities, they dropped the task I was designing for. At the time those particular users were in their early 30s, while our main users are in their mid-20s or at the time crossing a generational divide.

Have a UX Representative at User Visits

If your project team is sending people out to visit users and you may not or cannot go along, ask one of the other participants to act as your representative. Even better, ask two. Have the second person record their interviews on their smartphones.

In the past, my representatives have had the person they were interviewing also install Camtasia on the users’ computers. As the users showed the interviewers how they did their jobs, everything on their desktop was screen captured. Note, Camtasia does not record sound well without a real microphone attached, so you still need those phone captures. This is now one of my de facto methods because it has worked so well. Usually I will follow up with any additional questions I might have to the interviewed user. Just make sure your representative gets both first and last names of the people they talk to, so you can figure out their email address.

Most importantly make sure your representative has questions to ask, a list of video captures you want them to take and a reminder to bring back sample files and physical collateral your users use to do their jobs.

Stereotypes Are Useful

While stereotyping can be harmful in most cases in your life, using stereotypes of people can be handy in user research. For example, I’ve never seen an accountant who wasn’t detailed-oriented in everything they do. I’ve also found them to be penny pinchers. Sales people are relationship builders, but are not savvy technology users. All physicists wear plaid. Well, at my college they did. It used to be that most developers were asocial.

You do have to make sure you aren’t basing a whole user’s personality on a stereotype. While stereotypes can give you a general behavioral description, you can not to rely on them as your whole basis for design. For example, I’m pretty sure not all physicists wear plaid, not all accountants are penny pinchers and younger developers don’t meet the asocial geek stereotype. Make sure you are adding ample other research sources to understand your user.

Do a Survey and Ask for Forgiveness

If you have come up with a list of people and have access to their email addresses, consider sending your users a survey, especially if you’re sure pretty sure you’ll be forgiven. If you are unsure, send it to a small number of people so you aren’t disrupting business. Make sure to present your results to see the reaction – is it ok to send out to a larger audience or perhaps you shouldn’t go this route again.

If you only have a small list and haven’t been able to come up with a larger list, ask your participants to forward it to as many people that they know do the same job in their location and other locations. I once turned a survey of 10 people into over 75 this way. You will find that as much as you want to talk to users out in the wider company, they want to talk to you just as much.

Look for YouTube Videos

If you work in a company with many branches, try searching your company at YouTube. You might be surprised what you find. Not only might you find videos of the office space and employees working, you might find videos that reveal the atmosphere there, too. This was a delightful surprise for me. While I didn't find serious long videos of people working, I did get a good idea of layout of the offices, the general environment and general physical qualities and character of the people who worked there.

Use Web Stats

If you have access to web statistics in some form, you can learn about your users’ computer environments. Web statistics for internal applications are a little tough unless your company is willing to purchase a web analytics suite purposefully for internal apps. If your company doesn’t do this, see if your project team would consider using a freeware such as Piwik (for event driven architectures).

Sometimes internal web portals or intranet teams will be the one team who do have some kind of web analytics software. If you can access this data and identify pages that your user is likely to use often, you will have some of the information you want.

Putting Your Research Together

Most of these methods will provide you with a lot of information that you are going to have to go through and put together to get a bigger picture. The more of these methods you use, the deeper understanding you will get of your user. But it will take you some time to connect the dots.

Just like you would create sticky notes and look for patterns, do the same here as well. In the end, you will have a pretty close proximity of who your user is. If you are creating a persona from this information, have a representative user look at it and verify it.

I used several of these methods to create an account manager persona for one of my projects. Several years later when I was able to talk to a live account manager, I had them look at my persona and asked them if it described the typical account manager. I was very pleased that I had hit the nail on the head through my non-direct research methods.


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