Ask, don’t assume – getting started with user engagement

Piia Jalonen & Kaisa Ruotsalainen18.6.2020DesignReading time 7 min

When we’re heading into a new project or renewing an existing service, how do we make sure that we really listen to our customers, the end-users? Whose experiences, needs, and wishes should we be interested in, and how do we reach them?

Whether we’re redesigning an existing service or creating a new concept, the argument for engaging users in the process is simple: if we don’t ask our target groups about their needs and what matters to them, any plans and decisions we make regarding our service or concept are assumptions and guesses at best.

Even educated guesses can run the risk of us spending time and resources on developing the wrong features, or unknowingly missing out on significant business opportunities.

What methods do we then have to engage our customers? Who should we turn to, and how much will it all cost?

User engagement as part of the design process

In our recent webinar, we discussed methods for engaging users in designing services and the insights we’ve gained in our own client projects. We split the digital service creation process – and user engagement – into the following phases:

  • Research and ideate

  • Design and validate

  • Solve and adjust

In the webinar we dive deeper into the phases and different methods used through example cases – you can watch the recording (in Finnish) here. Next, we’ve summed up some of the goals and methods from each phase: 

1. Research and ideate

At the start of every project, we map the service’s business opportunities as well as the challenges it’s meant to provide solutions to. By engaging users in this phase, we want to find out who our customers are, what they really need, and what problem or problems we should be setting out to solve for them. Useful methods for gaining this insight are for example open questionnaires, interviews, design games, and co-design sessions.

2. Design and validate

In the next phase, we create a service concept and put it to test. We want to know if we’re heading in the right direction, if we’ve made the right kinds of decisions in the concept, and if the service will bring value to users. An effective method for this is to test the concept with customers using a simple prototype and conducting a complementary interview. Even a simple paper prototype can do the trick, sometimes a slightly more sophisticated user interface prototype is needed. To design the structure of the service and decide on the naming of its features, functionalities, and core content, we can use co-design exercises like card sorting.

3. Solve and adjust

Once we move on to the implementation and continuous development phases, the goals of user engagement are to challenge our user interface designs and ensure that the user experience is as intended. Suitable methods for this are usability testing (often with a functional coded prototype at this stage) and A/B testing. It’s good to keep in mind that testing and co-design can also be done remotely through various online platforms designed for this purpose, which free your process from the restrictions of time and space.

Small investment, big impact

We often hear concerns that user research and validation will take up too much time or cut a big chunk out of the budget. Try looking at it this way: the resources needed to gain user insight should always be scaled to the size of the entire service development investment. Large-scale ventures usually come with more elements of uncertainty, which call for more thorough validation and testing, while in smaller projects you can take a lighter approach.

In line with Lean thinking, start by focusing on the desired outcome and then figure out what’s the smallest investment that will get you there. User engagement can and should be incorporated into your organization’s existing models and ways of working – say, your next concept definition or development sprint.

In the webinar Kaisa shares how her team brought user testing into their two-week agile development sprints. In a couple of days, it’s possible to test the solutions you’re currently working on and put the results directly into practice.

Other methods we’ve found useful at Frantic are for example Google’s Design Sprint, where you can research, design, prototype, and test a new solution in only five days. In addition to the traditional Design Sprint, we’ve modified our own condensed Design Day concept, in which we gain customer insight and define targets through co-design methods in just one day.

Of course, there’s also the option of taking to the hallways of your office or directly to the streets, and asking passersby to answer a few questions or test a prototype with a couple of simple exercises. If you need more in-depth information, you can ask volunteers to come in for an interview. If direct interaction with others is not possible – this spring has been a learning curve for this, too – you can do just about everything mentioned above using online tools, some of which come with pre-recruited user testers as part of their plans.

Who do we engage

When we’re considering who to involve in the design process, we turn to data. Analytics or reports of customer feedback are valuable sources of information on who really uses your service and how. If you’re working on a completely new service, it’s important to gather a group of people as diverse as possible, according to age, background, life situation, geographic location, and experience in using different technologies.

You can use social media campaigns to recruit users. In this case, it’s a good idea to use a screener with a few preliminary questions to help you choose suitable participants. Many organizations also have newsletter subscribers, customer panels, or loyalty programs, which can be potential channels for reaching out to users. In some instances, it’s also an option to recruit testers from other teams or departments within your organization, especially if a strict NDA applies to the use and development of the service.

For questionnaires and A/B tests, a suitable number of participants can vary from hundreds to thousands, but if you’re able to target the right audience, even fifty or so responses can be enough. For research and concepting phase interviews, a good rule of thumb is to interview from 6 to 8 people, but even four will help guide you in the right direction.

Some data is better than no data

In the end, the purpose of gaining customer insight is to help us be sure that we’re designing services that bring real value to both the end-users and the organization itself. Quality almost always trumps quantity, and even a bit of relevant feedback is better than none at all.

So, if you’re stumped on how to engage users in the different phases of your service development, start small. Remind yourself and your team of your goals and list your open questions – but also prepare for surprises and be open to new ideas. Think about whose story you’re still missing and recruit suitable participants. Choose your methods according to your current project and available resources, and plan how you can make those methods a natural part of your current processes. Engaging users is a continuous process where the key isn’t to get instant answers, but rather to listen, learn, and grow.

Want to hear more about how our experts could help your organization in service development and engaging your users? Get in touch and let’s talk:

Authors: Piia Jalonen, Content Lead and Kaisa Ruotsalainen, Lead Designer

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