What being adaptable looks like in practice as a user researcher

Charlotte Jais - profile picture

As a user researcher, an important part of my skill set is being flexible and adapting mid-activity when needed. This commonly means asking additional questions during an interview about something particularly interesting that a user has raised, or slightly changing the way that an activity is run if fewer users attend the session than expected.

Recently though I had a slightly more challenging session. Here’s what happened.

I was expecting to run a co-design workshop with 2 users, but only one was able to attend. 

Being able to discuss ideas is quite an important part of a co-design workshop, and this was going to be more difficult with just one user. We also sometimes find that users are more talkers or notetakers rather than sketchers, and I was really keen to ensure we got some sketches out of the session to help with developing the concepts.

Not to worry, I thought. I can facilitate and sketch at the same time. This was a little tricky but manageable, partly because this was post-discovery work so I had a good understanding of the topic area by this stage. This seemed to work quite well during the first half of the session, so I was confident that this would also work well when we looked at the second scenario in the latter half of the session. 

However, I didn’t anticipate what happened next. I talked the user through the second scenario, and was about to start my timer for the next round of sketching, when they said to me:

“I’m not sure I can sketch that. I don’t think that’s feasible.” 

I hadn’t planned for this. 

But after a brief moment of almost panic, I realised that actually this was fine. Instead of sketching out design ideas, we talked about why they felt that a digital service might not work well for them in this scenario. The second half of the workshop was essentially an unstructured interview, and through doing this I was able to learn quite a bit about what the barriers would be to providing a digital service that could meet their needs.

And that’s part of what I love about user research – the unpredictability of it and the need to adapt to challenges as and when they arise. Regardless of how much time and effort you put into planning your research activities, you can never be quite sure that a session will go the way you think it will. 

You have to be able to think on your feet and recognise that you might not get what you expect to get from a particular activity. 

But I think there is always something useful to be gained from speaking to users, even if the outputs from a session are different to what you planned. 

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