I love NPR. On Morning Edition every Friday, they air StoryCorps, which are person-to-person interviews designed to make your heart fall out on the floor and openly sob.
The StoryCorps idea is so simple yet so powerful. Instead of having a show host ask prepared questions with perfect enunciation, you have two regular people with a shared history just sit and talk to each other. StoryCorps’ mission states that: “We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.”
SHARED HUMANITY. OK then. I’m inspired! My UXD empathy module is fired up! I wanna bring my user research up into a higher universe!
I started to rethink the old user research model where I pose as the “expert” and the study participants obediently answer my pre-written questions. I saw the StoryCorps model as one that was worth trying. What if the study participants almost interviewed each other? What kind of new answers would our team see?
AWeber’s recent mobile app beta study
In December 2015, we were in the midst of developing a new mobile app for our customers. As the mobile UX designer and researcher, I was busy planning out a closed beta study for the app. Luckily, our team is so talented, agile and lean that I had the freedom to shape the study as I wanted. So I sprung into action like a Moroccan tree goat.
I wanted the beta study participants — who were all active AWeber customers — to take conversation cues from each other. My hypothesis was that they would be more open, even unguarded, with each other than they would be with a research moderator like me. I wanted to become an enabler of the conversation, but not be looked to as the controller of it; that’s stifling. I wanted shared humanity. I wanted the study participants to just talk to each other and include me in the conversation.
A secondary, but also very important goal, was to make sure the entire product team could witness customer feedback in real-time. There were a few options...
What’s the best user feedback channel?
I thought about creating a private Facebook group. It seemed sensible. Everyone is on Facebook, so the barrier to entry is low. The environment is familiar. But I don’t like the overpowering distractions that are coming at people from every direction when they’re on Facebook. Plus Facebook comes along with habits and pre-set expectations that I did not want to compete with.
Back to my StoryCorps comparison… those interviews are conducted in a small recording booth, which eliminates distractions of all kinds.
The StoryCorps recording booth is small and distraction free, encouraging unencumbered interaction and focus between humans. Photo originated at http://gapersblock.com/.
I wanted that. I wanted focused attention. Simplicity. I wanted shared humanity!
I wanted Slack.
I created three private Slack channels to serve throughout the beta study: one for those of us on the internal AWeber mobile product team, one for the users in the Android beta pool, and one for users in the iOS beta pool. (Slack is a hugely popular messaging app; check it out.)
Even though some of our customers had never used Slack, there were virtually no problems getting them to try it out. Nice low barrier to entry.
These Slack channels became the hub for beta conversation and questions for our customers. Customers were able to drop in any time and leave their beta feedback, or express problems they were having with the app. I made sure I was monitoring at all times, even when I was sleeping! (We had one particular user who lived in Singapore who usually posted at two or three o’clock in the morning my time, but because he was so active in his participation, I wanted to keep him engaged and so I would sometimes wake up and respond at night.)
Slack actually worked out exactly as I had hoped.
These are the major benefits I saw by conducting user research in Slack.
- Low barrier to entry. Not one of my study participants balked at signing up.
- Multi-device access (for moderator and everyone else). More access! More participation! More good! I once answered a series of issues from a user while I was at a 9-year-old’s birthday party.
- Distraction-free environment. Relatively speaking, Slack’s simplified user interface (UI) and lack of a recreational social element such as Facebook has helped my study groups stay focused.
- Shared humanity! The research participants became a community. They were able to explore their connections as AWeber customers and as small business owners based on shared experiences.
- No one gets “talked over.” The old focus group dynamic was that the more dominant participants were heard while the rest nodded and crossed their arms. In Slack, as long as everyone hits “return,” everyone gets heard.
- It creates a comfort zone. Because the channels were private, the study participants felt safe. Just enough anonymity to allow honesty, and just enough recognition amongst your peers that there’s a sense of pride in participation. Plus, for potentially embarrassing questions, participants could direct message me on Slack. That happened several times.
- 24-hour availability. Unlike the more heavily moderated feedback collection methodologies such as one-on-one interviews, Slack was open all the time. For an international user base, time zones become a non-issue. Participants in Singapore? No problem!
- There are few hurdles to participate. People can leave feedback whenever they want. People don’t have to travel to do it. People don’t have to wear makeup or comb their hair or even put on pants.
- No cost. Of course, this is only true if you use the free version of Slack, which may or may not suit your organization’s needs.
- Transparency and accessibility to product team. Our team was able to observe 100 percent of customer feedback in real-time. As the UXD, I did not have to act as a relay between the users and the product team. This had a much greater impact on product decisions than any suggestions I could ever make.
- Great tool for a UX team of one. If you are a UX team of one (many of us are), centralizing your user feedback saves you so much time and eases your hectic schedule, which is good news in a lean UX environment.
Those are the “pros.” I have no cons, but knowing that Slack is not intended specifically for use as a research tool, this is my selfish wish list. (Some of these may be solved by using the paid version of Slack.)
- Improved ability to automatically direct new members to some kind of onboarding content to save me from repeating instructions.
- The ability to hide selected team members (a.k.a., observers), or make them invisible to the study participants.
- A smooth process for exporting transcripts, regardless of length.
- The ability to quickly bunch and export individual user’s comments. (Searching “from: username” does a nice job of bunching, but the export would be highly useful.)
- Text analysis.
Slack worked really well as a channel for moderating and receiving user feedback during user research, especially extended, ongoing research that involves multiple users such as a beta study. I will be returning to it for my next study!