Build better sites and apps by getting to know the people who use them.

By Dean Schuster, truematter

The manic drive to create websites and mobile apps quickly and cheaply requires huge sacrifices. Is complex functionality the first to go? Hardly. How about the content management system? Goodness no. Trendy design? Please.

The first casualty of most Web projects is, unfortunately, concern for the people who will use them. After all, people might actually have something to say about that nifty mobile app you’re building. Can’t have that. Ignore them and your preconceived ideas can flourish. Your site is probably already done.

This sounds absurd, but it has become an epidemic. The drive to build right now overcomes the small voice that asks, “Build what? For whom?”  We’ve created a culture of compromise.

I propose a radical idea. Maybe, just maybe, we should talk to the people who use our websites and mobile apps before we build the stuff for them. Radical ideas are bitterly opposed by the status quo. Sure enough, most Web teams avoid researching or interacting with people before they dive into work. I suppose they trust their own instincts or (gasp) make things up as they go.

I do not trust my instincts. Neither should you.


Talk to People First

Shockingly, real people have constructive things to tell us about themselves and their needs. If we ask, people will help us define our work in such a way that it has a greater chance of success. But here’s the thing. We have to interact with them before committing to a project direction.

There are several practical ways to do this:

  • Field Research: Observe people in their own environment.
  • Early Usability Testing or Prototyping: Test mock-ups with real people.
  • Direct Interaction: Talk with people.

Today, let’s focus on Direct Interaction. The principle is simple. If you are building an app for an Amusement Park, talk with amusement park enthusiasts. If you’re building a site that sells high-end bicycles, get up early on a Saturday and talk to cyclists. You’ll want to know the basics:

  • What are they like?
  • What do they do everyday?
  • How might the thing you’re building help them do what they do?


Know Before You Go

You’ll only get good information if you talk to the right people. If you’re building an Intranet, you’ve probably got access to the actual people who will use it. If you’re dealing with an external project, tread carefully. Often, the obvious audience is not correct. You may assume that pharmacists are the target for your stylish online pharmacy app. But Pharmacists delegate day-to-day tasks to entry-level employees. Guess whom you need to talk to.

People-Centered Activities

There are several practical ways to learn from people. Consider the following activities for your next interactive project:


Individual or group interviews are easy to conduct. Simply assemble people and ask them to describe their jobs and the tasks they do everyday.

Sample Questions include:

  • What are the top five tasks you must do everyday in your job?
  • What challenges you most about your job?
  • How do you typically use [site/app/system]? When do you use it? Where? How?
  • What are the best/worst features of this [site/app/system]?

Answers will reveal further questions. Imagine you are a detective, uncovering unspoken or poorly understood needs. With some perseverance, you will develop a solid notion of how a person’s day-to-day activities and how those activities might be best served.


Surveys are best when you can’t get direct access to people, or you want to allow time for thoughtful, individual responses. Offer printed surveys or use an online tool like Survey Monkey.

If you’re redesigning a site, use a survey to uncover the shortcomings of the current site or app. Ask people to rank key features and rate satisfaction. Ask why certain features are little used. In short, learn everything you can about why the current project has failed.

If you’re building something from scratch, focus on individuals’ wants and needs related to their everyday tasks. If cyclists lament both the cost of gear and frequent equipment breakdowns, you’ll develop an idea of what will motivate their use of a site or app.

Group Discussions

Group discussion can validate what you’ve learned from interviews or surveys.  Always ask exploratory questions that require elaboration. Keep people talking and they will eventually reveal golden nuggets of information.

Be careful. Group discussions can be dominated by strong personalities. Also, people are notoriously bad at projecting how they will use online interfaces. Focus group participants maintain that they religiously listen to NPR, don’t watch TV and eat largely vegan diets. Then they go home and watch Dancing with the Stars while gorging on Oreos. Take what you hear with a healthy grain of salt.

Group Activities

People offer better input when participating in an exercise than when asked to make comments in a group setting. These activities bridge the gap between focus groups (problematic) and user testing (perfect once you’ve got something to test). The following activities will yield invaluable information about your project and the people who will use it.

  • Site Structure Critique: Show an early site map or wireframe, even if it is rudimentary. Have people write comments directly on large-scale printouts. Discuss afterward.
  • Prioritize Features & Functions: Using post-it notes, have people identify and prioritize site features and sections. Let them debate their choices, propose new ideas and add elements as needed. You’re interested in how they think, not necessarily in what they say.
  • Competitive Critique: Post large, printed images of competing sites or apps. Have the group write what they like and dislike directly onto the screens.  You’ll learn a great deal about how people understand the environment in which your project resides.
  • Persona Critique: Prepare detailed Personas. These are user profiles of people who will use a site or app. They include demographics, attitudes, common tasks, and expected usage patterns. Create them and post on a wall. Invite people comment on them and change them on the spot.


Dean Schuster is partner with truematter and interactive usability consultancy dedicated to creating, reviewing and testing websites, apps and mobile experiences.

Persona Example