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Why We Conduct User Research
I never go more than a week without chatting about Elsa with an author. The nature of the conversation varies. Sometimes, I’m trying to figure out how the author typically does something: How, for example, does she currently keep track of the permissions for that big Health title? Sometimes, I’m trying to gauge an author’s reaction to a new design: Does the author find the new idea for visualizing chapter progress helpful, or does it only muddy the waters? At other times, I’m assessing how well the author can use something we’ve already built. For instance, does he meet any difficulties when sending a chapter to the Editor? If so, what elements of Elsa’s user interface are contributing to the issue, and how might they be improved to make this task easier in the future?
I’m Elsa’s user experience (UX) researcher, and my job is to conduct user research that helps Elsa grow and improve. Research has been an important part of Elsa’s development from the beginning, and it continues to play a central role as we add new features and functionality. Creating a good user experience requires a deep understanding of our key users – the authors, editors, and staff members who use Elsa the most – and I work with my colleagues on the UX team to put the user first in everything we create. Rather than guessing how people might use our system and hoping for the best, we prefer to constantly interact with our users, listen carefully to their feedback, and watch closely as they try out Elsa for themselves. This is part of our iterative approach to software development. We learn from our users so that we can try again – and again and again – to design features that will be valuable, enjoyable, and easy to use.
The first step in researching a feature is typically a discovery phase. We investigate how an author currently completes a particular task, such as writing comments on a manuscript, along with any challenges that typically arise when completing that task with current tools. The next step is concept-testing. We gather feedback on early design concepts—the more ideas the better—and identify the ones that are worth developing further. Later, after the designers have refined the designs and the developers have gone to work, we turn to usability testing: How easy is it for users to complete their goals using Elsa? What issues arise, and how can they be addressed? Small adjustments can have big effects. For example, we observed that the order of comment threads (at that time, from newest to oldest comment) was causing confusion. Based on those findings, the team reversed the order. Now, comment threads are aligned with user expectations, allowing authors to focus on the content of their comments rather than puzzling over which comment came first.
This only scratches the surface of the research we’ve conducted. Before Elsa was released, we engaged over 100 authors in writing sample chapters in the tool; in some cases we asked authors to write detailed diaries about their experience, including high points, low points, and suggestions for improvement. We’ve surveyed over 250 authors to illuminate which features matter most and visited authors in their offices, labs, and homes to gain a deeper understanding of who our authors are and how writing fits into the texture of their lives.
I want to stress that this is not just research for research’s sake. The goal of user research on Elsa is to have impact on the product. One of the best parts of my job is the time I spend working collaboratively with my teammates to translate research insights into concrete improvements. I invite the entire Elsa team to listen in on the research sessions, contribute their observations, and take the understanding they gain back to their own day-to-day work on Elsa. And I brainstorm together with our designers, developers, and product managers to identify areas of opportunity and develop solutions that take into account all we’ve learned while conducting research.
The key to our user-centered design process is the user – and if you are reading this, it’s likely that the user is you! If you’d like to be a part of the next round of improvements to Elsa, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to have you in a research session.
Want to know more? Visit the Elsa homepage to find out Elsa can ease the coordination of your book project from manuscript to market
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