Don’t Answer the User’s Question

Often times I find myself in a research session with a user where I’m asked how a particular feature should work. While the question in of itself is a clue to you as a product manager that either: a. it’s not working as intended; or b. the experience isn’t clear – it’s also an amazing opportunity to allow the user to guide you in their assumptions on how something should work.

I’ve found that the questions a user poses are infinitely more useful in guiding the UX of product development than the explicit feedback that is often expressed so liberally (if you’re lucky).

So how do you actually guide the user?

To begin a call, I typically start with some type of rapport building; my favorite question is, “What aspect about work keeps you up at night?” (make sure you include that crucial word, “work”, I’ve received some interestingly intimate answers when I’ve forgotten to do that). This question tends to elicit candid feelings about the experience my user lives in and highlights the prioritized issues rather than a brain dump of all the things they’re thinking about. Additionally, it allows me to instantly feel empathetic to their struggles as a human and a user.

The progression of a user research session typically leads to sharing mockups or wireframes that our product designer has built. I’ll ask that the user takes a few minutes to digest the mock up and walk me through their initial thoughts. Inevitably, because we’re all human, the user will doubt their assumptions about some part of the design or feature. They will ask you why something is the way it is. They will waver and falter and begin to describe something, only to stop short and ask you what it does and how it should work.

The most important thing you can do during a user research call is to not answer the question. You will have to resist the natural instinct to answer and combat the urge to elaborate on how you intended the feature to work, but you will come away with far more information than if you had answered their question.

Instead of answering, you simply need to ask, “What do you think this should do?” or “How do you think it should work?”. It will feel awkward and weird and you’ll definitely want to crawl out of your skin the first ten times, but it will help you clearly see where your understanding of the product and your user’s interpretation falls short. In the hundreds of times I’ve asked this question, I have never once had a customer not answer. Once you’ve asked the user to imagine the flow, they will provide you detailed, if not perfect, steps on what they expect to happen.

At TrackMaven I’ve had the opportunity to conduct research calls with dozens of users. While showing mockups of a few graphs, I kept noticing that multiple people would stop at one particular chart while walking me through their flow. They would begin to describe the capability, hesitate, move on, or stop and ask the inevitable question. It was a clear indicator to that something wasn’t right. By asking each user to describe what they assumed the data was showing, we were able to pinpoint the root cause of the issue and also - if not more importantly - understand what the user was really after. Once we had a solid understanding of the problem, we were able to quickly implement the necessary changes to the mockups, validate, and move on.

Identify Patterns

Keep in mind that the intention is never to stop what you’re doing and update your mocks based on one piece of feedback. Look for patterns and make the necessary adjustments as you go. The intention is to put yourself in the user’s shoes, to see it from their perspective, and ultimately build the product that solves their problem. One customer will never have the answer so you must always be asking the question, “What do you think this should do?”.

Not answering users’ questions has been one of the most important tactics I’ve used during research calls. It has led to better design, more intuitive experiences and frankly, a better relationship with my customers. As long as you’re listening, digesting and not directing – you’ll position yourself to receive invaluable and candid feedback. I encourage you to try it next time on a feedback or research call and see the difference it makes. Never stop asking the question.

Interested in TrackMaven? - we’re hiring product managers! Check out our careers page to learn more.

Alina Itkin

I am a Product Manager at TrackMaven recently relocated from San Francisco. Interested in the intersection of product management and UX research.

You can follow me on Twitter.