Practical Design: User Observation

by Dominika Blackappl8/1/2016

Design doesn’t have to be complicated, intimidating, or expensive. In an early stage startup design serves one purpose: helping you understand your users. To that end, design encompasses more than logos and layouts, it also means user observation, messaging, MVP specs, concise pitches, and more.

I’ve set out to create a set of free tools to demystify design and help founders improve their user understanding. These tools will be released over the next few weeks and will include: User Observation, Design Brief Creation, Messaging, MVP Spec, and Deck Design.

These tools are all designed to drive action. I hope they can lower the barrier to entry around thoughtful design by helping you learn by doing. The first tool is on user observation. Interactive versions of each tool will be available on my site.


User Observation Tool
This an excerpt. The full, interactive version is available here.

User observation is the process of getting to know your user. To bring a successful product into the market you have to leave the comfort of your day-to-day routine and get out to meet people. People are your customers and all people have pains, which is why all people have needs. The product makers – i.e. you – can satisfy some of those needs with a great product.

Below are steps that correspond to the User Observation Tool.

1. Familiarize yourself with these sample use cases.
A successful product solution responds to a need that grows out of a pain. As examples we’ll use the iPod and Zappos to illustrate the difference between pain, need, and solution.

Pain: Joseph could not have all his music with him wherever he went.
Need: Joseph needed a way to spontaneously access all his music on the go.
Solution: A pocket-size portable player that carried Joseph’s entire music collection.

Pain: Gisele could not wear shoes other than those available in a local mall.
Need: Gisele needed a way to choose from and buy other shoes on the market.
Solution: An online shoe store with free, fast shipping and returns.

2. Decide what you need to validate and stay focused.
Successful user observation requires a clear goal. The same process applies whether you need to validate your understanding of a user’s pain, your assumption about a user’s need, or your product as a solution. While quantitative research can tell you how many people clicked, only user observation will tell you why (or why not.) User observation will lead you to the original pains that drive human behavior.

3. Choose the right person to observe.
Realize that users and customers are sometimes two very different people or entities. The person you observe should be someone you do not know. Plan to conduct the observation face-to-face and in an environment where the pain occurs, the need surfaces, or the solutions would be used. If you have to travel, do it. You can usually plan multiple sessions in each location.

4. Prepare trigger questions and props.
User observation is the opposite of a sales pitch! Your role is to listen. The less you talk, the more you learn. The purpose of you speaking during an observation is to keep the momentum and make sure you stay on topic. The most useful trigger question is “Why?”.

Regarding props, sometimes it helps people to start sharing when you provoke them with a prop. For example, when validating the Zappos need, you can bring a piece of cardboard the size of a computer screen and, with a marker, sketch out a catalog layout. You can pull that out during the interview and say: “Imagine this was a site with all the shoes on the American market, what would you do with it?” And after they reply you’d ask, “Why do you say that?” You can also plan to use props from a user’s environment. You could walk with the user to their closet and ask how they create outfits and how they match shoes with them.

5. Choose your observation partner.
Users share the most valuable insights when they are certain that you are listening. Decide who will lead the observation and who will record the observation. The main role of the leader is to actively listen and pay undivided attention to the user. The role of the leader is also to ask questions or to make comments, but only those that keep the conversation on track. The role of the recorder is to take notes, observe the surroundings, keep an eye on timing, and manage the recording technology, if any.

6. Get started.
You can find an interactive version of this tool on my site.


  • Dominika Blackappl

    Dominika Blackappl is a designer and Part-Time Partner at Y Combinator.