The Curious Case of User Zero

user zero silhouetteI’ve often said that every research study reveals some hidden gem of understanding about the users — and, because I’m a total research geek, I call them Christmas presents. Earlier this year, I found a hidden gem of understanding that was comparable to a 6-year old getting a horse for Christmas!

The discovery of user zero

In the discovery phase of a project, I was brought in for a qualitative research effort on a company product that had never had true UX or research oversight. The product team had “advisory boards” with some customers and annual satisfaction surveys and thought they were doing user research. They insisted that I include one member other advisory board. I resisted but, in the corporate world, you don’t always get your way.
During my discovery research session with him, it became clear that his usage and needs in the current app far exceeded the rest of the users I had interviewed. In fact, he was to only one that was happy with the direction of the app and used all the bells and whistles the product team had added over the years. I would go so far as to say that the app seemed tailored to him. I had discovered “user zero.”
Like patient zero in viral outbreak scenarios, user zero was the source of all the clutter and feature creep in this application that made it difficult for the rest of the user base to complete their work without frustration and workarounds.

So, how did they get there?

As I mentioned earlier, the product team worked for years without proper UX and research capabilities.
  • They had identified two user types—a basic user and a managerial type user. Our user zero was lumped into the latter group. He should have been the basis of a third group identified as super users.
  • Without understanding their users’ workflow, they just kept offering features to the advisory board and creating what they liked. With just one round of research, I was able to map out the three different users’ workflows so that the Interaction designers could create appropriate experiences for each user group to match their workflows.

Understanding the difference between marketing research and user research

I believe the heart of the user zero problem lies in a misunderstand of what marketing research can do and what it cannot.

Marketing research tells you what is happening but provides no context or reason. User research is about why something is happening, or not happening. Both types of research have their value and are generally compatible together. The problem starts when you’re using only one or the other. Below is a small  sampling of each type of research.

Marketing research methods

  • Focus Groups/Advisory boards
  • Surveys
  • User groups
  • Test markets
  • Competitor benchmarks

User research methods

  • Contextual interviews
  • Usability Lab Studies
  • Ethnographic Field Studies
  • Participatory Design
  • Usability Benchmarking
  • Moderated/Unmoderated Remote Usability Studies
  • Card sorts

How do you prevent a user zero scenario?

  • Make sure that your product team is performing actual user research. You need to understand “why” the users do what they do.
  • Identify and document all user types’ workflows. You cannot create a user experience design until you know what tasks each user type performs and how they do it.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has experienced their own “user zero” situation and find out what you did about it.


Types of Market Research and Their Differences

Understanding the Types of Marketing Research

When to Use Which User-Experience Research Methods

Complete Beginner’s Guide to UX Research

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