"Putting the user at the heart of digital development" - Julie Dodd talking at PublicZone's user research event

 by Martin Belam, 31 January 2011

Last week I did three presentations in three days. The "tour" took in a trip to Leeds to talk to students at Leeds Trinity University College, who very much impressed me with their questions, and a talk for colleagues at the Guardian. I finished off the week appearing alongside ex-BBC colleagues Julie Dodd and Steve Rogers at an event hosed by digital agency PublicZone. Entitled "Putting users at the heart of digital development", it was aimed at helping non-profit organisations get to grips with the concept of user research and delivering great user experience in digital products.

Julie was first to speak, and opened by saying that whilst the term "user" was in her job title, she hated it as an industry term for describing those who utilise particular digital services. As she said, "I access the internet all the time on my phone and my computer, and I never feel like a user. I feel like a person".

She went on to outline five ways that organisations could quite cheaply improve their digital propositions.

One was "listen to your users". People will almost inevitably be discussing your brand or service in places like Facebook or Twitter. Tap into those conversations. You should also meet them face-to-face. Julie recommended that when you did, you left plenty of lengthy pauses in the conversation, to give the subject "thinking time".

Another point she made that I thought was extremely valuable was reminding people to "use your own services". She suggested you sign up to your newsletter, for example. If you find that it turns up badly formatted and full of links that you skip over because they are dull, then the chances are your audience do too. She also suggested you try researching your own organisation only using external sources, not your intranet or internal documents. This is how the public actually see you digitally, not how you imagine they see you.

Her over-riding point was that doing this kind of research used to be hard. To recruit members of your target audience and get access to them used to involve paying agencies, but social media has changed all that. Organisations can easily get in touch with people who are interested in them via social media channels. They don't even have to be related to the company doing the research. It was suggested, for example, that to do research about making a website for the 2012 Paralympics, it had been about finding already established groups of people interested in disability sport and contacting them, rather than trying to build a focus group community from scratch.

Part of the reason for the event was that PublicZone have produced a booklet in order to try and help NGOs and non-profits use some of these techniques. The tips, of course, hold true for any business. "The User Research Handbook" can be downloaded from the PublicZone website.


The other speaker, besides myself, at Friday's event was Steve Rogers, Director of EMEA at Google. In my next blog post I'll have some of the great examples he gave of using research to inform and improve products.

If you were at the PublicZone event, you can find the links, notes and slides from my talk here.

1 Comment

All good advice. I'd add onto the advice about subscribing to your own newsletter to check for formatting and/or interest issues to subscribe to OTHER newsletters or services from similar or competing websites and businesses. This is to see what they're doing that you're not and vice versa. You want to try to pick up on certain things they're doing to interest other users of their services that gives them an edge over you.

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