It was the 1920s. The RKO theatre stood tall and dazzling in the neighbourhood of Flushing, Queens. It was schmick with its popular movies, travelling shows, a glamorous interior with a sleek red carpet that made you feel like every night was a special occasion.
But no one came.
Families and farmers would walk on by without a second glance. The theatre was falling fast and so the owners decided to bring on an industrial designer to help boost interest.
His name was Henry Dreyfuss.
When Dreyfuss came on board, he did what he thought the people wanted. He slashed movie prices, tripled the showings and gave away free food.
None of it worked.
Burdened with this problem he paced the halls looking for answers till he landed in the theatre lobby. Here, he overheard someone express how afraid they were of messing up such rich carpet with their muddy shoes.
And then it clicked.
The neighbourhood was home to a lot of workmen who would have found the appearance of the plush red carpet to actually be rather intimidating.
Within the next day Dreyfuss had the red carpet replaced with plain rubber matting and one by one, people came in. Eventually crowds filled the theatre and RKO became a historic landmark where it still stands today.
In the theatres case, the problem wasn't that they were lacking in their offerings. The problem was that the theatre was seen as "too nice" for its location, and by extension, its customers.
Sometimes the problem you have in mind to solve isn't actually the problem at all. You wouldn't know if you didn't ask.
This is what design thinking is rooted in; the practice of breaking down a problem and focusing on why and who we are making it for, and less on what or how. It is about taking the time to empathise with and understand someone else's life in an effort to make it better.
Interviewing your users is an approach to continuous learning. It promotes the relationship between the person and the product or service you are building.
It asks us to engage with the people who experience the very problem we are trying to solve. The approach bears the juiciest fruit when performed often and disciplined throughout the creation process, and even afterwards. Like getting regular health checks. It’s a good idea even if you’re feeling healthy - you get the reassurance that everything is ok and the prompt if something is not so ok.
How does user testing impact you?
When we initiate the conversation and create an open dialogue, we begin to understand more about what it is people actually need. This often requires us to look past the sometimes-obvious solution and dig deep to articulate how our users think and feel. Sometimes they might not even realise that was the problem in the first place. Just like the red carpet.
Integrating this process also assists with saving time and saving money. Two valuable and indispensable resources in software development. When we spend time designing the right product first, the rest comes much simpler and reduces the risk of re-work. Get comfortable with making mistakes now as you might find yourself prolonging the inevitable and end up expending more energy doing so.
Imagine devoting your time to building a product that users end up not wanting or using... then having to maintain that product or building it again. Not fun. It's like cooking a huge pot of pasta, except everyone wanted pizza and now the pasta is overcooked, so you end up having to eat it solo for dinner 5 nights that week.
User interviews is what separates something from being useless to useful, so long as its purpose stems from the user's intent and follows with clear functionality.
Ever heard of Canva?
Canva is a drag-and-drop online design interface. They offer a web-based platform that allows users to effortlessly create visually stunning content.
After launching their service, they discovered that a lot of users began creating something but ended up abandoning it. The team set out to engage in some exploratory research and user testing. They soon learnt that users often had a preconceived notion that they were "not creative enough" and left feeling dejected.
Through these sessions they learnt just how imperative the first moments when using a design tool are for empowering the user. They needed to be encouraged in their creative ability. So the team optimised the onboarding process and introduced interactive challenges and videos designed to build creative confidence.
In just over two years, Canva grew to more than 10 million users. They attribute this feat to having incorporated user feedback early on in the product.
To incorporate this process in your way of working, you'll want to start with the foundations. This involves:
- A list of goals,
- Questions you want to ask,
- People to talk to and above all,
- An open mind.
Don't be afraid to stay in the mud, for you might find gold... or your own plain rubber mat.
For a deep dive on how to perform your own user interviews and get the most out of it, check out our Way of Working.