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Becoming the User

Why we need to put ourselves in our users' shoes both to better empathize and identify areas where we can improve their experience

Words by Janelle Ward, Visuals by Allison Corr

“I’m riding a bicycle in Leiden, the Netherlands. I’ve done this a thousand times before but this time, I’m on an e-bike and a giant orange bag is on my back. The rain pours down and soaks through my jeans and shoes. Water drips from my helmet into my eyes. The wind whips across the road and for a second, I think I’m losing my balance. I can’t see the directions on my phone because the phone mount case is fogged over. I have three minutes to deliver the food order in my bag and I can’t figure out which of the apartment buildings I should enter.”

When I started leading a UX research team in logistics, a big part of my responsibility became understanding the courier experience. I had never been a bicycle courier before, honestly, it scared me. If I was apprehensive about doing the very job my users did every day, I’d better confront that fear head-on. This would be the best way to onboard into my new role. So, I did it.

As UX researchers, our duty is to find the best way to advocate for our users’ reality, whether it be talking to them, observing them, or living their reality ourselves. My purpose for writing this article is to encourage the last option: living their reality.

Stepping into our users’ shoes—becoming our users, as literally as possible—is, hands down, the best way to grow empathy and compassion for our users. When we gain this first-hand experience, we are putting ourselves in the best mental state not only to advocate for our users, but to also influence our stakeholders.

There are three principles to keep in mind when exploring this technique.

1. This approach works for a variety of users

Your users don’t have to be bicycle couriers for you to become advocates for their experience.

Does your company sell fintech software to banks? Become a bank teller-in-training for a few weeks. Do you work for a startup that’s developing a video-streaming app? Round up friends and family and take notes on how your movie nights unfold on upcoming weekends.

You can become the user in any setting where there are users, and that describes each and every company that employs UX researchers.

My previous employer makes low code software applications used in B2B contexts. Not exactly the same user experience as hopping on a bike. It proved challenging to get into companies and observe the process of how these apps were built and the collaborative efforts needed between employees to make this happen. It became impossible after COVID hit.

So, we got creative. A service designer on my team wanted to learn how to build an app with our in-house software. Together we decided to build a tool for UX researchers. He, backed by a small team of experienced developers, served as scrum master, and I served as product owner.

We kept a detailed log of our experience collaborating together. This meant embracing the ethnographer's toolkit: Snapping lots of photos of our physical environments and screenshots of our digital work. Taking notes after every meeting or session, after email exchanges with involved parties. Regularly writing reflections on our notes.

That way we were able to better understand how our digital product could be used in B2B settings. We didn’t have to go into other companies to experience what collaboration could look like for our users.

Once we were able to do more research with our customers, we found they shared a lot of our challenges and successes.

Of course, it’s wise to use common sense. Sometimes becoming the user isn’t the best approach. For example, if you work for a dating app company, and you start online dating despite being in a committed monogamous relationship. Or, you work for a cat app and adopt a few kitties despite being severly allergic.

Always consider your own well-being in addition to the well-being of your users before making the leap. Also ensure that your manager is on board with your plan, and they are confident that your approach won’t cross any cultural or legal lines at your place of employment.

2. Start from the context, not the product

I’ve often heard about UX researchers onboarding by doing a usability evaluation on the product for which they are responsible. This is a great start, to put your expert UX eyes on something to identify existing problems. It sets a baseline for identifying potential pain points to validate later with users.

However, this approach ignores the context of the product.

In my case, the digital product tied most closely to my users was the courier app they use to receive and deliver orders. Had I focused on the app alone, I would have missed so many facets of the courier experience.

How can I best protect my phone when the rain is pouring down? How do I maneuver the giant orange bag when the wind is gusting at top speed? What should I do when I encounter an unfriendly restaurant, or deliver an incorrect order to a customer?

These are all parts of the experience. They are necessary to identify in order to improve the experience. As UX researchers, we must ignore organizational structures that may encourage us to silo our insights. We can’t solve user needs in isolation, and we need to acknowledge the context, not just the product, to innovate and design around all these interactions. That’s what I realized after getting on a delivery bike.

3. Find ways to effectively communicate this advocacy back to your stakeholders

You’re a researcher; you are clearly sold on the idea of advocating for your users. You have (literally) stepped into their shoes.

Now, what do you do with your hands-on onboarding experience? You need to report back your experience to your stakeholders. The best approach to take will vary based on company culture, but there are some universal tips.

If you’ve just joined a company, becoming your user is an essential part of your onboarding. Share your plans far and wide. Bring it up in every meet-and-greet you’re involved in during your first weeks. Make sure people know your plans and the philosophy behind them.

As my empathy and compassion for my courier users grew, I shared my insights in informal settings, in presentations, and in writing. Because I embraced this experience, I was able to build my research practice from particular talking points grounded in real-world experience.

For example, spending time as a courier let me see firsthand the complexity of delivery logistics and how it works as an ecosystem to make courier food deliveries happen.

I was able to drive home the perspective that couriers are the connective tissue of the business by contrasting my day-to-day work life (sitting at home, behind my laptop) with theirs (couriers interacting with customers and restaurants all day long). Because I could visualize this as a courier myself, I could give concrete examples of how they are the vital link between the two pillars of a food delivery business.

There were also meetings where people weren’t sure about practical matters—how the app actually works for couriers, or the process couriers need to follow in order to take a break on their shift. Becoming the user enhanced the user experience perspective, but it also allowed me to demonstrate my newfound expertise of the process, adding credibility to my role as a dedicated research professional.

Before I sign off, a note on this practice during COVID. Yes, most of us have had to curtail our in-person research practices due to the global pandemic. Guess what? Your users have had to curtail their lives and the way they use your product, too.

Couriers have needed to mask up during the pandemic and keep their distance in restaurants. They follow a strict protocol to ensure contactless delivery to customers. I was able to join their ranks as long as I followed the appropriate safety measures. Please do so yourself, too.

Whoever your users are, they have an invaluable story to tell. As a UX researcher, the best way for you to hear their story is by stepping into their shoes and coming as close as possible to experiencing their reality. The moment will come when you can enter the zone where UX research happens–protecting the necessary time to connect to real people using your tool or service, and moving onto the practical details, like choosing the right research methodology. But first: become the user to really understand their experience.

Janelle Ward has led experience research at digital product companies, both as a founding lead and as a manager, upskilling and growing research teams. Before moving to industry, she spent 15 years in academia, teaching and conducting research in the field of digital communication. You can find her on LinkedIn, and read more of her work on Medium.

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