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Facing Your Fears: Approaching People For Research



When working on a project, have you ever felt that you and the rest of the team were making a lot of decisions based on assumptions? Having to make choices with limited information is not unusual — especially in complex projects or with brand new products.

Phrases like “We think people will use this feature because of X” or “We believe user group Y will switch to this product” become part of the early deliberation on what to develop and how to prioritize. At some point, though, these phrases start to feel like pure guesses and the ground under your feet feels shaky. What can you do about it?

Regardless of your role in the project, one activity in particular will help your whole team build a solid foundation for product strategy and design: that is, approaching potential users for research, such as interviews and usability tests.

Such research is an important aspect of user-centered design. It helps you build products that are rooted in a deep understanding of the target audience. Among other benefits, interviewing potential users helps you achieve the following:

  • more precisely define who the target audience is (and isn’t),
  • face and challenge your assumptions,
  • uncover unmet needs,
  • discover the behaviors and attitudes of potential users firsthand.

You can conduct informal yet valuable user research yourself with practice and with guidance from great sources like Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users and Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy. One thing that stops a lot of people from trying their hand at research isn’t just lack of experience, but a fear of approaching people and asking for their time. This obstacle is greater than many would care to admit.

The Difficulty Of “Face To Face”

I was teaching an experience design class in high school when it really hit me. Students were engaged in the design process until they were told that they had to request interviews from strangers. The anxiety levels went through the roof! A look of shock covered their faces. Shortly after, two of the students asked to receive a failing grade on the activity rather than have to face strangers (a request that was not granted)!

This was no longer a case of time, opportunities, resources or priorities. The interviews were a part of the class and were considered essential. The students were presented with a clear set of expectations, provided with aid in planning and writing questions, and taken to the location (a college) to conduct the interviews.

When all of the usual obstacles were removed, what was laid bare? A strong fear of approaching strangers, made even stronger by the fact that so many interactions nowadays are done online, rather than face to face. Ask someone to create an online survey and they’re all over it — ask that same person to pose those same questions to a stranger face to face and they’ll freeze up.

One might assume that the problem afflicts only those in high school, but such a deep-seated reaction is felt by many working adults who are suddenly responsible for requesting something from strangers — even when the thing being requested is a relatively low commitment, like 10 minutes for an interview.

Are you at the point in a project when you would benefit from insights gained from face-to-face discussions with potential users but find yourself blocked by a fear of asking? Read on for techniques to help you approach people for research, the first step to gaining the knowledge you need.