Your Users Are Doing Something Surprising

This post is for all of you lucky enough to have a product with real users. Way back before you had users, or even a product, you probably went through a process to figure out what you should build. During that process you may have written user stories and work flows that described, in various levels of detail, how your users would perform each expected task. But you know who didn’t read your user stories? That’s right: your users.

The result? Somewhere out there, a whole lot of your users are doing something totally unexpected with your product.

Ok, maybe it’s obvious that sometimes users do the unexpected. Maybe you expected your SMS-based social network to help people find out where their friends are in real time, but instead celebrities started using it to market directly to their fans. Maybe you created a product designed to help bands promote themselves, but instead ended up with a social network where people hook up with their high school sweethearts. Or, although this seems extremely unlikely, maybe you had an MMO but people just used it to share photos.

Whatever they’re doing, it’s something you didn’t expect, but it’s very important that you learn what it is as soon as possible!

Why Should You Care?

There are three excellent reasons for you to know what your customers are actually doing with your product:
  • So you know if you are missing an opportunity to pivot your product or marketing
  • So you know if you are missing an important feature
  • So you don’t accidentally destroy a commonly used workaround or "unplanned feature"

Missing a Huge Opportunity

The first reason is pretty well demonstrated by the examples I’ve already given. Flickr could have gone on being an MMO that its customers also used for sharing photos, but the company really took off once they jettisoned the majority of their product and started concentrating on the part that customers found most valuable. Figuring out the surprising thing your customers are doing with your product allows you to decide if you would be better off eliminating 90% of your product and concentrating on the 10% people actually want.

Missing a huge business opportunity doesn’t only apply to pivoting your product. You could also be missing a huge marketing opportunity. One of the benefits to understanding more about what your users are doing with your product is that you can start to segment them better. For example, maybe a small group of your users are using your product in a very particular way. Now, maybe those users are all alike in some important way. If this is true, maybe you should be marketing this new use of your product to other people like them or emphasizing this use in your marketing materials.

Missing a Feature

Sometimes understanding what your users are trying to do with your product can tell you a lot about what you should be helping them do with your product. We all know that users are terrible at predicting their future behavior, but this isn’t their future behavior we’re talking about. It’s their current behavior. Your customers want to do something with your product so badly that they’re going out of their way to come up with clever ways to do it on their own.

Again, to use Twitter as an example, think of retweets and hashtags. Neither of those was built into the original product, but users saw missing functionality and provided it.

Destroying a Workaround or Unplanned Feature

The third reason is a little less obvious, but it’s an outstanding way to make yourself loathed by some of your most passionate users. Sometimes even a small change can completely destroy a workaround that people were using to get your product to behave the way they want it to.

Some form of this happens virtually every time a new browser update gets released. Each time a new version of IE or Firefox comes out, thousands of web developers tear their hair out trying to figure out why the website that looked so lovely in the previous version starts looking like it was designed by Salvador Dali. The reason is often because some hack that they used to achieve a particular effect is no longer supported in the upgraded version.

Now, you can argue with me all you want about how web developers shouldn’t be using browser hacks to get their CSS right or that this only happens to bad developers, but let me remind you that this is just an example. And, in this example, the web developers represent your paying customers. If you ruin the way that they’re used to doing something, they become a lot more likely to go find somebody else who will let them do things the way they want.

How Can You Find Out What They’re Doing?

This is one of those cases where there is absolutely nothing more beneficial than watching your current users interacting with your product in their own environment. You will never get this information in usability tests with people who have not used your product, and you will not get nearly as much good information by simply interviewing current customers without observation.

Let me be perfectly clear: the best way to get this information is to spend time observing your users in their natural habitat, whether that’s their home, office, car, or wherever they use your product. You should schedule appointments with them at times when they would naturally be using your product anyway, and you should ask them to think out loud as you sit quietly in a corner and take notes. After they’ve spent a good amount of time with your product, you can interview them about their experiences and follow up on any workarounds or odd behaviors that you saw. Note: Be respectful, please! Don’t make your customer feel like a freak for doing something you didn’t expect.

If you absolutely can’t be in the same room as your user, you can also get good information by observing remotely using screen sharing and webcams, but in person is really ideal. One of the big reasons that simply interviewing them about their habits won't work as well is that they don't realize they're doing anything unexpected, so they can't tell you where their behavior differs from what you expected.

You should, of course, also be recording as many facts as possible about usage stats so that you have a statistical overview of which parts of your product are being used most, but this is one of those cases where you can learn things you never expected just by watching customers in person. It's often tough to spot these things in data. In fact, you may not even think to gather data on this particular behavior, since you didn't expect it in the first place!

What Should You Do About It?

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that you can never change anything that a customer is using as a workaround unless you’re totally pivoting your whole product. That would be insane. What it does mean is that you should be aware of what your actual users are doing so that you can improve the experience for them, or at least not make it worse by removing a beloved workaround or unplanned feature.

Remember, if your customers want so very badly to use your product for a particular purpose, even if it’s not the purpose you originally intended, you might want to make it easier for them to do it.

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