Creating a better user experience does not need to be expensive, you don’t need fancy tools like eye tracking or facial expression detection to make a difference. Here are some tools I use to get a better understanding of what users need.
The universal tool to communicate besides words are sketches. Whether I draw an idea for a user interface, use a state diagram to discuss transitions or draw boxes and arrows to show connections, sketches at the heart of everyday working and thinking. What you need for this? Paper and a pencil.
In order to understand a human using your system you not only need to talk to him but you have to observe him doing his work. This is not just playing the fly on the wall. These sessions are interactive in nature, resulting in a back and forth. The user shows you how he works, you ask questions, he goes into more detail, you wonder about certain points, he explain his reasoning (or sometimes has wonders himself). Again paper and pencil is great. Having the option to take screenshots or (permission provided) a photo is even better. The most crucial is an open mind. You need to go in with a beginner’s mind: do not assume anything and wonder about almost everything.
Observation is a pretty direct way to learn about the user doing his work. But even then some part of the mental model is hidden. To dig deeper into what kind of concepts and words he uses and how these are interrelated, a card sorting session can be helpful. Together with him we draw those words onto cards and let him sort them into groups and give them priorities. Here often discussions arise about the exact words you write on the paper. Some words need to be in more than one group, two different words mean the same, another word means something different in a different context. Here you also can take a glimpse at (sub-)domain bounds. Again cards, a pencil and paper to take notes is all you need.
Design studio or crazy 8
Sketching is so helpful you can do it even in a group. If you need to brainstorm for a user interface you take a sheet of paper and divide into 8 sections. Then you draw 8 very simple sketchy version of the UI in 8 – 16 minutes. After that you evaluate them in the group against your goals. The first round produces divergent sketches after seeing each other drawings, you will see that the next round converges into a common direction. You probably guessed it already: paper and a pencil is all you need.
Paper Journey Mapping
The last one in this group is more of an analyzing and communicating results tool. A journey map is a way to show the user (his thoughts, feelings and actions) along the steps he takes in his daily work. This map can highlight different aspects of your findings: the many applications he has to use to get his job done, the critical parts which mostly affect his mood, the frustrations, the many points for failure, the different people involved and so on. A large (DIN A3 or bigger) piece of paper is helpful and different colors of pencils help to highlight aspects.
All these methods use (almost only) pen and paper but are very helpful in getting to a better user understanding and therefore a better user experience. What are your tools for understanding?
If you have any questions or need more details please feel free to comment. I am at the starting point of the user experience journey and like to learn from others.