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Holistic user profiling: making research more user-centred

By Jess Lewes

Business Development Director

Published:

Peter Yeomans, User Researcher at HM Land Registry (soon to be moving to Ovo Energy), spoke at UX Bristol last July about holistic user profiling and user-centred research, and this lightning talk stayed with me after the conference as something that is very relevant to user recruitment. As a result, I asked Peter if he would be open to a longer discussion about the concept, and here is what we talked about.

What does ‘holistic user profiling’ mean and where did the idea come from?

holistic user profiling user-centred researchThe thinking behind what I originally called holistic user profiling came from work I’d done in the past with Steve Wheeler at Plymouth University, looking at Marc Prensky’s concepts of digital natives, people born into the digital world, and digital immigrants, those born in analogue times.

The native/immigrant metaphor aligns very nicely with the technocratic perspective of the Digital Inclusion scale. David White challenged this in 2011, with his concept of Digital Visitors and Digital Residents. In 2012, Prensky went on to acknowledge the flaws in his earlier theory in favour of the much more open concept of Digital Wisdom. When I combined this with concepts of technophobia and understanding of the impact that an individual’s contextual anxieties can have on performance, the digital inclusion scale felt at odds with what was real.

The Digital Inclusion scale measures one important aspect of people’s interaction with the digital world: their technical competency. However, it does not help to categorise the whole person. For example, prior experience informs a user’s disposition to technology: people in their fourties exhibit technophobia in high stakes contexts, because they have had experiences of the catastrophic loss of work when their hard disk failed. This technophobia is evident in comments like “I will break it” or “it won’t let me; it doesn’t like me today.”

“The anthropomorphism of technology is a classic indicator of an underlying technophobia.”

Conversely, young people, for example, are often technically adept, but their confidence can border on recklessness; they just assume the cloud will save their work, but often have no real understanding about where or how their work or data is saved. Those with true Digital Wisdom are starting to raise questions, such as why their data is required and where their data goes – there is a new level of sophistication emerging, where users can reside at both ends of the Digital Inclusion scale at the same time (for example, reluctantly online because they are suspicious of the “Borg”, yet keen to use the web to gain personal or commercial advantage, perhaps by developing their own “brand”).

I’ve now moved my thinking to consider this as user-centred research. If we are to understand the needs of users, we must consider the whole of the context of the whole of the person.

How does this apply to user research?

The missing piece in the jigsaw came at a Cross Government User Research Meetup in June 2017, where Claire from the Home Office spoke powerfully about a change in mindset from seeking assisted digital users to finding people who need help.

If we are to understand the needs of users, we must understand the whole of the user’s context, including their technical literacy, data literacy, and levels of technophobia (which we could consider as digital literacy), a concept best defined by Doug Belshaw in 2012. You can watch him talk about it here and people’s general levels of anxiety. For example, a user applying for a working visa form may be holding down an £80,000-a-year job in the creative industry, and still need to apply for a visa. This is the most terrified they have ever been, as they will have to leave the country if they don’t get it right, so their anxiety levels may impact their technical abilities because there is a lot at stake.

“Strip down any behaviour and, at the bottom of it, you’ll find that what drives behaviour is anxiety.”

In this instance, they don’t know what to do or where their data goes, who will see it, what are the consequences of their actions. This makes it crucial that designers engage with and design for the “outliers”, to provide fully inclusive services for people, particularly in government.

What can people do to be more user-centred in their user research?

We need to look at the whole person and not just their technical abilities; to take a well-known proverb, “you have to walk a mile in their shoes” or meet them where they are. Recruiters and researchers must make sure that they understand the whole of the user’s circumstances.

In 2002, Sinkovics and Saltzberger, developed a set of questions to assess a user’s levels of technophobia by exploring their attitudes towards ATM machines. It obliquely picked at concepts like “what is going on behind the the ATM?” and “what is the risk of fraud?”.

I plan to take this thinking forward by developing a set of similar questions focusing on self-checkouts, store cards, pay by device or demand-based pricing. In most cases, it would be easy to ask people how they feel about those technologies, and their answers would help you to gain much deeper insight into their perspective on the world:

+ “I won’t use them because it costs someone a job.”
+ “I won’t use a store-card because I don’t want people to know what I buy.”
+ “I don’t want spam clogging up my inbox.”
+ “I want to be able to cherry pick offers that suit me without being bothered by things that don’t.”

I would like to run a large-scale survey to get a couple of thousand responses to questions about e-commerce and align those responses to the user’s technical abilities, and stories of when tech has let them down to try to triangulate to a more informative Digital Literacy scale. This would then give recruiters and user researchers a standardised script to screen users against, and ensure that they get their service tested by as wide a range of users as possible.

How does this impact testing, when trying to be inclusive with research and recruit people who are less confident or experienced with technology?

We may well end up talking to more people, as well as working with a more diverse pool of users. Depending on what you are researching, having that conversation about their opinion of store cards beforehand to get a feel for their digital confidence shouldn’t skew testing. It doesn’t impact on the testing process as it stands, but it enables the researcher to run research with a full understanding of the whole of the person we are talking to.

It seems to me that the best solutions will emerge from the widest range of research undertaken with the widest range of users recruited through the widest range of methods. Finding and then gaining the trust of the disenfranchised user will remain the challenge. I suspect part of this will take place through user-centred research. In other words:

+ Reaching out to find users in a range of ways;
+ Understanding the whole context of those users;
+ Making the user research participant experience more inclusive.

Click here to read Peter’s original blog about holistic user profiling and user-centred research.

More blogs?
Researchers are from Venus,
recruiters are from Mars…


If you would like to find out more about our in-house participant recruitment service for user testing or market research get in touch on 0117 921 0008 or info@peopleforresearch.co.uk.

jess lewesAbout the author: Jess Lewes is passionate about making research user-centred, and she is a source of knowledge for how to approach the recruitment process to get the best results for your UX research and testing. Jess is available to speak at your event, conference or company workshop.

About People for Research: We recruit participants for UX and usability testing and market research. We work with award winning UX agencies across the UK and partner with a number of end clients leading the way with in-house user experience and insight.

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