User experience and usability studies are both parts of technical communication that I trained in as a graduate student. One of the articles I published during that period was about studying users in context and inviting them to teach others in order to demonstrate their own learning.
“Training the trainer” is easy enough when a user can recall the steps they use to navigate a process. But it’s not so easy when users aren’t reliable reporters.
This afternoon, I sat in a train carriage with several young people in their 20s and 30s and a very elderly man who was traveling alone. When the man boarded, a pair of young men sitting in front of me made room for him and put his suitcase overhead. Or so I learned later.
Fast forward three hours, and we were approaching the station where several of us planned to disembark. The gentleman couldn’t find his bag.
What did it look like, we asked him. It was red, he said.
We looked up and down the carriage for a red bag. There weren’t any.
“Are you sure?” we asked. “Yes,” he said. “Red.”
One of us went up-train to the next carriage and searched there. No bag.
His seatmate and I agreed that we’d notify the conductor at the next station, and a few of the other passengers started worrying about him losing his luggage: what would he do over the holiday weekend without his clothes?
Friends of the young men who’d sat next to him texted to confirm where they’d put the case at the start of the trip. Overhead, they replied.
And sure enough, there was a lonely bag above his seat.
It wasn’t red.
It was dark grey on every side except the one facing the ceiling, and that side was screen printed with a vintage Levi’s pop-art design.
The design was red, yellow, and black, and nothing at all like what I’d imagined based on the man’s initial description.
We’d all spent more than 20 minutes looking for something that hadn’t existed, and we did it because we assumed—wrongly—that our friend was an expert on his own stuff.
It’s hard to know in the moment whether a user is a reliable reporter. And so rather than depending solely on what they say, it’s worth also observing what they do.
By contacting the former seatmates of the man on the train, we were able to retrace his path through the carriages and “find” his bag the last place anyone had seen it. We were able to find it even though it didn’t match the expectations his account had shaped for us. As we leaned on his and others’ actions, and not just their accounts, we uncovered a fuller truth than “Yes, it’s red” could offer.
So it is sometimes. People will swear we want a service and then never sign up for it. Or we’ll interpret a whole suitcase in terms of a tiny part!
If you work with people of any age or background, just bear in mind that sometimes people are unreliable reporters, even about experiences and other things that they closely hold.