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Five steps to put yourself in the shoes of your user

Or: Why the feelings and needs of your readers are not automatically what you have decided for them.

Bias is all around us. That’s one important learning of my master’s program Content Strategy at the FH JOANNEUM. In my “User research course” it was all about this topic and how to create a good user experience.

In my daily, stressful work as a journalist deep reflection often comes too badly. Tight deadlines and the pressure of being the first with the best story don’t leave so much space for regular reflection. During my studies, I recognised how important it is to take a step back from daily routines and just take your time to think. Why? Kendra Cherry explains the dilemma with the so-called cognitive bias in my view pretty well:

“A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them and affects the decisions and judgments that they make”.

Seems logical? Yeah, I mean we know that we are shaped by our experiences, values and attitudes. However, when decisions should be made, we often forget it. As journalists, our main goal is to deliver information as objective as possible. But, let’s be honest: Are we always 100 percent objective? It already starts with the selection of the topics we are presenting to our readers or viewers. How do we select them? What’s important for our readers and what’s not?

Be aware of your biases

We try to be as objective as possible, but bias is in all of us. I realised that in the already mentioned “User research” course. I learned there about many different types of bias. I don’t want to list all of them, instead I want to tell you my most important learning: The first step is to be aware of our own biases — and yeah, there can be a lot of them in our unconscious mind.

My second learning: Our users don’t necessarily need what we think they need. Just talk to them! Especially in journalism, I’m convinced that we need an active discussion with our users — but not just on the level of topics.

It’s also about the outplay channels and the development of new products. In my view that’s crucial to survive in times of tough competition on the media market: For print newspapers it’s hard to reach young readers in a digital-first-world and for mainstream TV it’s getting harder and harder to reach younger viewers. New digital products may be part of a solution for this dilemma.

What we have to keep in mind: The user needs to like our product. He doesn’t care if we as the producers think it’s perfect. User research in terms of user needs and user experience are the key to that. Remember: Ask your user and base your assumptions on research and testing with users.

Just image a newspaper and its executives who want to develop a news app in order to reach more readers. They develop it, test it and are pretty satisfied and want to launch that app. They’ve forgotten one crucial thing: to test it with real user and identify pain points of the app and needs of the users.

User research through thinking aloud test

How to do it? In my “user research” course I got to know one method which is pretty beneficial for that. It’s the so-called thinking aloud test.

Jakob Nielsen describes the method as follows:

“In a thinking aloud test, you ask test participants to use the system while continuously thinking out loud — that is, simply verbalizing their thoughts as they move through the user interface”.

He recognizes many advantages in the execution of such a test. The good news for all chronically under-financed editorial departments: It’s quite cheap and easy to conduct.

“Simple usability tests where users think out loud are cheap, robust, flexible, and easy to learn. Thinking aloud should be the first tool in your UX toolbox, even though it entails some risks and doesn’t solve all problems.” — Jakob Nielsen

Nielsen is right: A thinking aloud test can’t solve all of our problems. Would have been too nice 😉 However, for our purposes it’s a good start.

Thinking aloud in five steps

You want to get started? Armin Eichinger from the university of Regensburg lists five steps to conduct a thinking aloud test:

  1. Preparation
  2. Introduction
  3. Test
  4. Analysis
  5. Report

Step 1: Preparation

Decide which tasks the user has to fulfil during the thinking aloud test. Identify the crucial features of your app and let the users test them. Furthermore, the testing method has to be clarified: Should thinking-protocols be made? Also, video recordings are helpful in most cases.

Make sure that all documents are ready until the beginning of the test. And, don’t forget to select and recruit participants for the thinking aloud test.

Step 2: Introduction

Inform the test participants about the duration and the purpose of the test. An important and relaxing note to the participant is that their behaviour is only interpreted with regard to the product properties and is not used to draw conclusions about their abilities.

Furthermore, clarify legal aspects: Let the test participant sign a form to voluntarily participate in the examination. It should be explained how the data collected will be used. If video or audio recordings are made, authorization for further use must be signed.

Step 3: Test

You’re now at the main point of the process: the conduction of the thinking aloud test itself with all the participants. The interaction between leader and participant should be reduced to a minimum. In particular, developers who may be attending the test should not influence the behaviour of the participant through tips and hints.

During thinking aloud tests, it is often necessary to provide the participant with brief information such as “Can you tell us what you are thinking?” or “Did you expect this behaviour?” to encourage thinking aloud.

Step 4: Analysis

Usability tests usually provide three types of data: quantitative attributes, qualitative problem descriptions and subjective data collected through questionnaires. These data show whether the usability goals have been met, where the problems with operation are and how serious these problems are considered to be.

Video recordings may enable a more detailed analysis of the interactions of the testing participants.

Step 5: Report

Don’t lose the sight of your target group when preparing the final report. Basically, the report should consist of the following sections: summary, methods, results and recommendations. Be aware of your own bias here: Recommendations should avoid making judgments based on certain values.

You’re quite not sure about your own bias and you’re looking for kind of inspiration? My fellow student @Laura Reibenschuh has written more about this topic. Read her article here on Medium:

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