If you don’t regularly talk with your users, it’s vital you start. Hence this occasional series where I share what’s worked for me. And also what hasn’t

My colleague Urmy at our recent user forrum

My colleague Urmy at our recent user forum

There’s all sorts of ways you can talk with users and I’ve tried most of them. It could be an spontaneous conversation with a customer over coffee. Or you could collar a colleague in the corridor with a quick prototype. Or, with a bit more time and money, you could run dedicated one to one sessions with hand picked users.

If you’re made of money, you could rent a dedicated lab. Yes, labs exist for finding out what users think about websites.

Another way to talk with your users is to run a group session. I ran one last week for a client and wanted to share how I did it and why it’s useful.

Prepping for an event

The Performance Platform at GDS offers government departments a great way of sharing data. With a handy dashboard you can see at a glance how a service is doing.

I invited people from across government, from managers of services to folks interested in data. As this was the first event of its kind, I wanted to get a good mix of people. Also they had to be interested in what we were doing and willing to talk about it. There’s nothing worse than running a get together where no one says anything.

We needed refreshments, plus a projector and wi-fi that works (as people may want to show their projects). We also found a central location, at BIS HQ in Westminster, so it was easy for people to attend.

I wanted attendees to own the event so asked them to email ideas of what they wanted to talk about. If you’re running a get together you may want to set your own agenda in advance. Whatever suits you.

I also tend to run events in an informal way as it seems to work for users. If you’ve produced a pile of papers to read beforehand, for example, then that will put people off.

On the day

To kick off, everyone introduced themselves. Then I asked for more suggestions of what we could cover. We took the list and worked out the running order together, there and then.

I’ve found it’s handy to have someone who can strike up conversations and encourage everyone to get involved. As I’d spoken to most of the attendees beforehand, I did this.

We decided on a running time of two hours absolute max with a break in the middle. The subject matter we were covering was quite weighty and I didn’t want people’s heads to explode.

What we found

I won’t go into specifics as you can read about them in my blog post on the GDS Data website. Apologies if the language is a bit technical.

In general though, it was a great event. As it was the first one of its kind, we expected to hear some fundamental questions about what we were doing. We got those and they were really helpful.

We heard about lots of great work in practice and ideas that we’d not thought of. Again, great. We also found out about product features that worked well and a few that needed improving.

Using what we learned

This isn’t design by committee. It’s up to the person managing the product (not me in this case) to take all the feedback and weigh it against what they already know – from their stats, from other users and from their own experiences. They may well challenge what they hear too. One person saying something in a room doesn’t make it gospel.

Finally, it’s important that attendees see practical outcomes from any event like this. I’ll be circulating notes (my next job after finishing this blog post!) and we’ll also action the first point on the list. They wanted an online forum to discuss ideas 24/7, which happens to be another great way of hearing from your users. That’s top of my list for tomorrow.

How I can help you

  • Finding out from your users what they really need
  • Translating what they tell you into concrete actions
  • Managing your product so it works for them