SHOW ME THE GUI! Patterns To Help You Deal with Users Who Are Forever Too Busy Right Now

Conventional usability wisdom says we should all spend lots of time studying users. Great, but what about users are perenially "too busy right now"? I'm focusing mostly on ethnographic observations and evaluating (paper) prototypes, because that is really all you can hope to do. Participatory design with the end-users is right out.

Most of the patterns are based on visiting external sites, hence issues regarding what to do while waiting for access to users.

The Problem

Access to users can be difficult due to a combination of several factors:

The Patterns

Presented in summary "Pattlet" format.

Distraction-Free Zone

Encourage users away from their work area. This way, you'll get their full attention. Furthermore, what seemed urgent a couple of minutes ago is no longer quite as important. They are acutely aware of this phenomenon and often suggest it themselves.

Of course, a usability study must involve users in their natural environment, so do that too. But with busy users, the compromise of going elsewhere is often worthwhile.

Surrogate Users

Work with "Surrogate Users" - people who are similar enough to your target users to provide useful infomation. Candidates would include: (a) people who previously worked as the target users (e.g. ex-traders who have moved into IT or management can be "surrogate traders"); (b) people who have worked in the same environment, but in a different role (e.g. retail staff at a pharmacy can be "surrogate pharmacists").

Userless Evaluations

Use expert knowledge to compensate for user feedback. We all know the importance of testing with real users, but engineering work is a trade-off. If testing with real users is more difficult than usual, then, all other things being equal, effort will be better spent not evauating with users. This is about being pragmatic, rather than abandoning the cause of user testing: you can and should still test, but make it a smaller proportion of the overall effort. Userless evaluations would include heuristic-driven inspections and cognitive walkthroughs.

Feature-Driven Microevaluations

Evaluate features, not entire systems.

Intermittent Dialogue

If you can't catch users in person, use other forms of communicationPhone calls, email, instant messaging, online prototypes, faxes or photos of drawings, screenshots.

Passive Observation

Don't get users off-side by pestering them. Few people like to be shadowed all day long - even if it's passive observation. It can get annoying, and it can also make confidential activities awkward. So while onsite, be prepared to spend a lot of time away from users.

Perfect Preparation

Every minute is vital, so prepare ahead to get it right. To uncover any flaws in the logic undermining planned activities, rehearse them all with a couple of Surrogate Users beforehand. And ensure you have the right material.

Sideline Activity

Have something else to do while waiting for access. When on-site, you won't always be with the user, since they might not have the time and you should give them a break anyway (see Back Out). Later in the visit, you might be able to use this time to analyse results and plan further work. But earlier on, you will probably be unproductive if you're trying to analyse any results. So Bring along extra work to occupy yourself while waiting.

Standby Zone

What do you while waiting? Visit Starbucks? That could get tedious if you're waiting for hours on end. Be sure to Organise an area to spend time while waiting for the user. Ideally, you'll want a desk with an connection to the LAN and/or internet. Best to organise it in advance of the visit.

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