The New York Times recently offered an amusing glimpse of commercial ethnography — Consuming Rituals of the Suburban Tribe. Its author aimed a soft-focus lens on field studies of typical American consumers… and even found a wizened ethnographer to quote, ”What consumers say and remember and what they actually do are often two totally different things.” The article — and its subject — proved offbeat, and quirky, and probably made the radar of New York television executives as fodder for a mid-season sitcom replacement. Interestingly, the article also pinged the the web’s favorite usability curmudgeon, Jakob Nielsen, who offered his critique in a recent Alertbox column. Don’t ask leading questions, says Jakob. And don’t draw attention to specific issues. Well… yes. And no.

There’s a tremendous amount that can be learned by simple observation. There is, however, far more that can be learned by engaging your test subject, or your customer, in frank and open conversation. A specific technique comes into play here — active listening — with which you may encourage your customer, restate facts, reflect feelings, and offer summary views to achieve clarity. None of these methods, skillfully executed, should be construed as leading, though any of these methods can be easily botched, particularly in a formal test environment. Which is why I’m particularly fond of informal testing… which I refer to as Usability by Walking Around… UBWA.

Long before I’d read anything by Tom Peters, I learned the principles of Management by Walking Around from managers who actively practiced it… walking the hallways, talking to employees, listening, and offering perspective. I made the same techniques my own when I became responsible for projects and products, and carried over a number of the same guiding principles when my interests turned to the field of usability. Just as it’s impossible to manage people and projects from some removed office, it’s impossible to practice usability from a far-off place — you must engage the people who use your products, as well as those who create them.

In a typical UBWA tour, I’ll start with the Help Desk team. These are folks on the front lines of customer issues… they know precisely who is having difficulty using your products, and they’re probably the very first to spot trends among user groups, or particular points of pain in new releases. Listen to them. Pay particular attention to those aspects that are less than tangible… these are issues that will probably never be reported up the food chain because they are difficult to measure and substantiate — and they often convey real insight into how your products are actually being used, as opposed to how they might have been designed to be used.

Continuing the tour, I’ll try to meet those same customers I’ve just learned of from the Help Desk team. If they are internal customers, this is easy. If they are external customers I may have to settle for a phone conversation… though if the issue is particularly thorny I’ll try to arrange an on-site visit — an informal visit — usually structured as “I’d just like to look over your shoulder as you step through X, Y and Z with our product.” Listen carefully. Listen actively. Reflect. Summarize. Ask, very casually, if you might take some notes. Be very careful, though, to not convey that this is in any way “on the record” — your customers’ tone, voice and manner will suddenly seize up — they are now filtering their own point of view.

Next on the tour… the development team. Just in time to referee a debate between the visual designers and the information architects. To be honest, there’s always a debate between the visual designers and the information architects… which is very likely a good thing. There’s nothing like a spirited exchange of ideas — even the bad ones [or, especially the bad ones] — to keep the overall customer experience meaningful. If it’s relevant to the conversation, this would be a good time to relate the conversations you’ve just had with your customer, to see if it sparks something. If it’s not relevant, save it for a better opportunity.

On to the marketing and sales groups… they’ll certainly want to know about the customer conversations, and they may have a point of view for the development team. Moreover, they’ve probably spoken to yet more customers and solicited additional feedback — feedback that probably needs to be squared against other sources. While sales and marketing teams have a valuable point of view, it’s a view that is very often one-dimensional. Listen. Trust. Verify.

Finally, a UBWA tour is rarely complete without a stop by the offices of my own management to offer a distilled version of today’s events and a general progress update. With luck I won’t find them in… they’ll be out walking around, too.

This is discount usability of the highest order. Simple. Cheap. Relevant. And unvarnished.

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