SHOW ME THE GUI! Patterns To Help You Deal with Users Who Are Forever Too Busy
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.
Access to users can be difficult due to a combination of several factors:
- Users are rare and/or highly paid: A
trading system I worked on recently only had 10 primary users
worldwide. It was fun working on a system where I got to meet the entire
global user population, but needless to say, their time was considered a
- Heavy workload: Users often simply have
too much work to do, and can't spare the time. Raving about
future gains will have little effect if the culture doesn't value
anything beyond next Tuesday.
- Immediate response required:
Some users, even if their average workload is low, must respond immediately
to events which could occur at any time, such as calls from clients. For
instance, I once observed the night shift in an intensive care unit. It was
quiet enough to talk to the medical specialists, but they were never fully
attendant because they were constantly checking on their patients and
responding to reports from nurses. If you're only visiting for a short
time, you might find lady luck reduces your interaction with users to a few
- Long hours: Users who work long hours
find it difficult to stay back for a usability study. Even if they do, the
impact of fatigue means you are likely to get a biased result.
- Status Management: In some environments,
workers avoid taking time out from their core work for fear of retribution
from co-workers, who may perceive it as a soft option. This is exacerbated
in those situations where a manager will sacrifice only the inexperienced
- Low Perceived Value: Some organisations
have short-term agendas and don't wish to devote resources to longer-term
benefits. Moreover, many simply don't know much about user-centered
techniques, and can't see the benefits of studies with users.
Presented in summary "Pattlet" format.
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.
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").
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.
Evaluate features, not entire systems.
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.
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
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.
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
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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