Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Lesson 01: The AEIOU's of Observation

Observation is the key to understanding. Users will often tell you what they want or dislike, known as articulated feedback, but observing their unarticulated needs in context will provide the unique breakthrough insights you need to make a new product great. I'll address the best methods for seeking, compiling and analysing articulated needs in a future post. For now, it's time to learn your AEIOU's.

Imagine a scenario in which you are trying to understand how to improve upon a standard wire paperclip. You touch and use the paperclip yourself. You spin around in your chair and try to catch your office mate using one, until he notices you staring and freezes in his tracks. Maybe you even ask your parents, neighbors or friends to demonstrate using a paperclip for you. Afterwards, you have a few ideas. You noticed several things that could improve a paperclip, but when you sit down to write or sketch suddenly it seems like you're just thinking in circles. You may end up with one or two hard-won concepts that, while they are improvements, don't seem to be a broad enough base upon which to build. For most companies, this means going back to the drawing board, asking for "more to go on," or often abandoning the platform entirely.

This fruitless scenario can easily evolve into a powerful tool if you add a little technique to the recipe. Committing to the concept of observation in context (AKA not in a focus group setting) is a good step towards success. Utilizing the AEIOU method to catalog your results will help you reap the full benefit of the time you invest in observation.

What to pay attention to during an observation:
  • ACTIVITIES: What are people doing? Describe tasks, paying attention to the sequence of steps (ie: task analysis).
  • ENVIRONMENT: What are the details of the setting? Pay attention to the lighting, furniture, noise levels, and other influencers to the user experience.
  • INTERACTIONS: What exchanges are taking place? Between people, objects, and space?
  • OBJECTS: What objects do you observe? Doodle and list what they are, their uses, and abstract meanings that people give to them.
  • USERS: Who's using it? What's their demographic profile? How do their unique perspectives change the experience?
Using AEIOU, you have given yourself 5 categories across which to interpret a single observation session. Each category is like a lens through which you see the product in all its deficiencies and possibilities. Assuming that you have 2 items of note for each category, 5 simple observation sessions now results in 50 line items of findings. Suddenly you have generated a pool of information that can be further analysed to reveal patterns, trends, and ranked action items. Of course, how to do that requires other techniques, but utilizing AEIOU will get you started on the path to an abundance of ideas that have the potential for much more than just one breakthrough paperclip.

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