The first step before we can even begin thinking about designing for the user, is to understand and research the context in which users will be interacting with the application or website. We often think we can make assumptions about what it's like to be a nurse, or a fork-lift operator, but unless we did these jobs ourselves, we can't really assume we know much about them at all. Usability is all about the context of use - how does the user see things, what do they know, what do they want, and how do they work?
There is a technique called "Contextual Inquiry" that can assist you in finding out what this 'context' is. There are 4 steps to a contextual inquiry:
Step 1: Context - Go to the user's home or work environment to understand the context of the user's actions. Ask good questions! Make sure they are open-ended and have wide-range. Also, take photographs and sketches of the environment (yes, this includes the office space itself, and importantly, the participant interacting with other people and objects).*
Step 2: Partnership - Discourage the participant from seeing you as the 'expert' or the 'interviewer'; rather, take on the apprenticeship role, and treat the user as the expert, and you as someone trying to learn their job.
Step 3: Interpretation - Ensure you go through your findings with the participant to verify that your interpretations and subsequent conclusions are accurate. Ensure to record the session to capture intonation as this will be central to your analysis. If possible, transcribe the session.
Step 4: Focus - Create a 'Hunt Statement' with the development team before you venture out. Capture the focus in an observation guide to prevent you getting side-tracked on your site visit. Ask all the members of the project to jot down one burning question they wish to ask the user on a post-it note. Group the questions in sections, and ask everyone to vote for the most important section. From this, articulate the focus question and create a statement: "I am going to research [activity] so that I can [design a system]".
*Quick side note on how to take great notes!The AEIOU system: Activities, Environments, Interactions, Objects, and Users.
"Affinity sorting workshops" are where you and your team share and agree on what you saw. What you want to be able to understand afterward is:
- Mental models people build
- The tools they use
- The terminology they use to describe what they do
- The workflow
- The underlying goals that people have
- People's underlying values
If you absolutely cannot conduct on-site observations, there are other options:
- Diary Study: ask them to record their thoughts, experiences, and impressions around the topic.
- Critical Incidents: ask users to write down waht they were doing 5 minutes before and after a critical incident.
- Photo-ethnography: ask users to photo-document a workday, weekend or leisure day.
- Remote desktop: ask users to share their screen with you and talk through the way they work.