magnifying lens on personSeveral years ago, I took a storytelling workshop and the instructor used a peculiar expression: “Listening is a Gift.” I say “peculiar” because it was a storytelling workshop. Didn’t that mean we were there to, you know, learn how to tell stories? Well, yes, but the instructor was making a critical point in the craft of storytelling: to energize the storyteller, you give them that of which is most valuable to them – a listening ear. And as we worked around the circle each of us empowering the next with our gazes and open ears, something became clear: if we really want to empower people and enable them to open up so we can understand their deepest, unmet needs, we must first give them this gift and just observe, taking them in.

During customer development for a new product or service (or an existing one looking for a little lift), the number one priority is to develop empathy for your end-users through user research. Whether you’re asking for their money or their time (perhaps even more valuable), in their mind, there has to be big value and little risk. But how do you learn what they value, what they consider risky, what they consider their biggest challenges? It begins with listening and observing.

When we set out to conduct user research, we need a tool that will help shape our conversations such that we make the most of everyone’s time. This where writing an Observation Guide (sometimes called a Discussion Guide) comes into play. It’s a bit of a mix of interview questions and points to consider when meeting with our customers.

Quality User Research Starts with Quality Data Gathering

We’ve found that many Client struggle with doing this effectively, but it’s actually fairly straightforward and wanted to share. So, here are 7 factors to consider when you sit down to craft up your discussion guides:

  1. Context – Consider when and where you’re going to conduct your studies. Where are challenges? Is it a potentially high-stress or hazardous environment? Are they using proprietary technologies you should understand before arriving? Are participants under duress or are they casual?
  2. Guide not Script – The observation guide should not be a script to which you stick and never waver. If it dictates your every word, it’ll be unnatural, cold, and will likely shut down your participant.
    Instead, keep it simple and something that you can keep to memory. This way you can move around the dialogue and focus on your participant’s responses. Consider how you feel when you call a customer service line for help with something and the representative refuses to go off of their script? Do you feel like they are listening to you? Consider this when you prepare to interview your customer.
  3. Observation over Conversation – The may be an overstatement, but it cannot be stressed enough. When you embark on your discovery journey, keep your words to a minimum. Wherever it seems like they’re just going to ramble, let them. Remember that you have a schedule to keep an you’re guiding the conversation, but don’t make them feel rushed. If you can’t get to all your points, that’s okay. Often times they answer half of your questions or at least reveal responses that cover them and you’ll capture what you need without actually asking the questions.
  4. Open-Ended Questions – Related to the previous, this is the best way to get your participants to talk. Stay clear of yes-no questions. Instead, ask “How do you…” “What are your biggest…” “Why…”
    On the point of finding “Why” – Our goal is to get to a root cause of issues and this can be accomplished by a technique called “The 5 Whys.” Keep that tucked in the back of your mind as you observe your participants.
  5. Watch out for Leading Questions – Tips for eliminating bias is out-of-scope for this post, but one, and perhaps the biggest is to protect the data coming in.
    A leading question is one in which you bake the answer into the question. Questions like, “Are you on Facebook every night?” will not allow your participants to answer for themselves and could thwart the rest of your discussion as they will begin to lean on you for responses and perhaps telling you what you want to hear.
  6. Formatting – Remember we’re making a tool. So, organize the observation guide in a way that enables you and your team to write on it. Making a vertical split of questions on one side with a space for notes on the other is helpful. Also, group questions in a way that enable the team to bring the responses back to the war room in an organized fashion.
  7. Run a rehearsal with an objective perspective – This may seem obvious, but it’s important to test out our questions with someone who hasn’t been exposed to the creation of the observation guide. If possible, find someone who’s representative of your sample set. So, asking your significant other or your mom (unless of course they’re your customer) doesn’t count.

Those are some practices we’ve found to be really helpful. Would love to hear yours or if you have any questions, feel free to share in the comments.


With over 17 years of strategic, creative, and analytical User Experience-related practice, Chris Pallé has served in numerous institutions such as world-class ad agencies, e-commerce enterprises, and education groups ranging from small boutique shops to Fortune 100 companies – he gets the Bootstrappers and The Powers the Be.

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