How observation research helps us improve quick start guides

Head of Strategy

We support many of our clients to bring clarity to their customer communications.

This includes creating quick start guides and other types of product documentation. Although our clients’ products and services are often very different, their objectives are usually similar and based on supporting customers or improving understanding.

We first need to find out how an installation or onboarding process is intended to work and how it currently does so for the client. We do this through initial research, often assessing existing materials and observing people as they work through specific tasks such as installing or upgrading a new product. This could be one of our own team or someone from the client.

When working on quick start guides, observing participants using the products and supporting materials is essential to provide the best user experience possible. This research method is incredibly useful in understanding challenges, gathering insights and testing potential solutions.

What is observation research?

Observation sessions help identify strengths and weaknesses of a product or service through one-on-one sessions where a ‘real-life’ user performs tasks and is observed.

Sessions can be conducted with an existing product or service or, if this is not available, a prototype and associated materials. They can take place in either a controlled or natural environment. Natural environments are preferred as they generally produce more realistic results. This activity helps clarify the user experience, including overarching goals and the steps that users take to achieve them.

In this article, we’ve outlined the key stages of the process we use for observation research and included some tips based on our experience of planning and conducting this method of research.


Define objectives

This first stage is always a collaborative approach involving the relevant stakeholders. The first task we complete is agreeing the objectives with the client in order to outline what we are looking to achieve in the project. Defining the number of sessions for the activity is our next step. We’ve found the minimum observation sessions needed to generate valuable results and actionable insights is six.

Another task we complete in this stage is agreeing who is responsible for recruitment. This is often done internally with the client, however, in some cases we have considered an external research recruitment agency. In order to allow enough time for users to find a suitable slot, recruitment begins at least 2 weeks before sessions are due to take place.

Lastly for this stage, we confirm where the sessions will take place. The ideal location is the participant’s home so they feel most comfortable. This isn’t always possible and in your observation research you may find that you need to book a testing environment.

Participants are often required to provide a fair amount of time and effort so incentives are likely to be needed to encourage their attendance.


Write the list of tasks

After completing those steps, we propose the initial list of tasks for the observation session and review this with our client in order to ensure it covers everything. This is compared to the objectives of the session and this activity should be done at least a week or so before the testing is scheduled to allow enough time for feedback and revisions.

The participant should be asked to complete a set of tasks relevant to the product or service, with post-task questions used to assess their views on the activity. Tasks should include any relevant context required, particularly if the participant is unfamiliar with the product.

For the post-task questions consider including ratings and other quantifiable questions to enhance reporting on the research as a whole. We’ve found it’s important to conduct internal practice sessions to check the validity of the tasks and expected run-time before finalising the script and tasks.


Conduct the sessions

Observing users is a skill that improves as you complete more sessions. It’s important to set the tasks for the session and let the participant work through them independently, or as closely to how they would complete these on their own. A notepad and pen are the most important tools we take into these sessions as they allow you to quietly take notes. The noise of tapping on a keyboard when something happens can be distracting and influence the participant!

We start the session with a friendly introduction, small talk to put the participant at ease and an explanation of the purpose of the research. Sessions are structured by the tasks outlined to the participant at this stage. Questions are only asked about the process they completed after these tasks are finished.

As an observer, it is crucial that we attend sessions in-person, but we have to remember never to guide, facilitate or otherwise influence the process that the user is completing. In some circumstances, interaction may be required, particularly at points of failure in the tasks or where prototypes do not yet contain full functionality. These moments should be noted.

As one of our best practices, we record the audio and video of the session for future reference. The audio and video are then something we can return to for reporting, along with the comprehensive set of observer notes.


Report on the findings

For any research we complete, the report is how findings are communicated to the majority of client stakeholders. We consider the purpose of the research and write the report based on answering those key objectives outlined in stage 1. We like to write our key themes with a descriptive title and a short detailed explanation to show the breadth of the user experience.

The report details the activity, covering observations and the major themes that were identified through the process. We also include a summary of each participant’s responses to the rating questions that are often asked at the end, as well as any quotes or specific insights. A summary of each user’s profile may also be provided, if the participants were selected according to specific characteristics.


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