How do your customers interact with your product? What problems do they encounter in its use? The best way to find the answers to these questions is by “shadowing” them as they use it. This means following them around, filming, photographing or taking notes on how they use the product.

While it’s true that you can ask customers about their experiences with your product, people don’t always tell the truth about their actions and thoughts. In addition, the customer may not notice issues even though he is experiencing them. He may not realize he is using the product wrong or that he is working slower because of a particular obstacle. Shadowing gives a more accurate picture of how people are using an item and where they encounter difficulties.

Developers of products often assume that anyone with common sense can figure out how to use it. This may be untrue because people are fallible, developers are much more knowledgeable than the average user or the product is not user-friendly for a specific group. For instance, a medical device company may produce a device which dispenses arthritis medicine. What they may not realize, until they see a patient using it, is that arthritic hands are unable to properly dispense the medication. Or a device used by healthcare professionals may have insufficient lighting, leading to human error.

In order to develop a safe and effective product, it is necessary to watch people from the target market try to use it. For medical devices, this could mean simulating the environment of a hospital or physician’s office. A patient-centered device might be tested by going to people’s homes and shadowing them to see where they use the device (kitchen, bathroom, bedroom?) and what issues they come up against as they work with it.

When shadowing users it is important to pay attention to various touchpoints and track whether the same problem crops up numerous times. You may see a few distinctive patterns, based on the user persona or on the way he chooses to use the product. This allows you to segment and analyze your users to understand how to best serve various types of customers.

Shadowing is an extremely effective strategy which can replace or be coupled with customer surveys. It’s important to find flaws in the design early on in the process, to prevent throwing away money on creating a product which is not user-friendly. Create a prototype and shadow some typical users to understand real-time interactions and rethink design issues before production begins.

Have you ever asked to users to create their own film or photographies? This Design thinking method helps to understand the user experience. A variant used by the Triode team!

Patrick Sirois

At Triode, we specialize in developing new products and services for complex industries like medical devices and transportation. We work with you closely to help define product strategy, with an emphasis on reducing the risks associated with innovating in these sophisticated and often regulated consumer-oriented environments.