During my career, I’ve helped to spearhead multiple User Experience initiatives. The key to this undertaking is to conduct ongoing user studies as part of development iterations. Where analytics seeks to make sense of quantitative data, user studies seek to answer qualitative questions about users and their use of software. What are users thinking when they land on your Web site? Why are they confused by the names of your labels? What was it that clued them in on the fact that they needed to use the search field to find what they needed? How could they have gotten what they needed more easily? User studies are a form of contextual inquiry (CI) and ethnography, and tend to uncover valuable data points not easily discovered in other ways.
When I joined the Gartner for Technical Professionals group, I knew very little about the internal research workings. When I was introduced to GTP’s contextual research (CR) process, I was thrilled that a similar process was already in place. While it’s true that a constant flow of inquiries and dialogs with customers helps to fuel our research and opinions, contextual research is our opportunity as analysts to “just listen”. This is real, deep inquiry:
- We find willing candidates with real world expertise in a given technology space.
- We isolate these interviews from any consulting. We try to be observers, and let the interviews challenge our preconceptions.
- We isolate interviews from sales activities. Many of the participants in the research interviews are not Gartner customers.
- We visit interviewees in their own work location for several hours.
- We ask open-ended questions about their challenges, experiences, and opinions.
- We gather the findings via multi-hour interpretation sessions, involving the CR team.
- We distill findings with a massive consolidation session. Attached is a photo of one corner of our consolidation room.
- We create new documents for our customers to offer insight in to industry evolution and trends.
Right now, I am participating in such a CR project, this one aimed at mobile application development. The interviewees have included publishers of a #1 app in the Apple app store, large services organizations, small startups, major software developers, manufacturing companies, financial services, and everybody in between. We wrapped up this morning after an entire week in a Gartner conference room. 1,300 data points were tagged, grouped, debated, distilled, debated, annotated, debated, and summarized. And can I say, we emerged with some very insightful (and surprising) conclusions. From this project, multiple field study and other documents will provide recommendations to organizations developing mobile applications.
It’s hard to quantify the value of such insight gathered across verticals, a broad spectrum of technologies, and a myriad of development practices. When you read our research or speak with analysts, you’re not just getting an opinion. You’re getting knowledge that has been refined by a lot of behind-the-scenes inquiry and disciplined (and difficult) interpretation. Pure research is one of the best parts of my job, and doesn’t get enough coverage for our organization.
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