As a researcher, I feel incredibly fortunate that I get to spend copious amounts of time talking to people about who they are and what they do and why. It’s my job and it really is a superb way to get paid.
The most popular phrase I hear when I talk to people about what they do at work is, “I wear many hats”. Depending on the intent of my research, I might delve into their responsibilities and discuss the many facets of their role. There are daily, weekly and annual tasks and situation-dependent responsibilities. Some people’s roles change at particular times of the year or month or for different days of the week as those with more than one job title. There is one thing that comes up time and time again: jobs are complicated. Job descriptions are complex. Responsibilities vary and depend on a number of factors like organisational values, departmental goals, team dynamics, geographical location and work environment and are always influenced by a person’s background and past experiences.
But it is important to me that I get into this gritty detail and listen to everything they are saying. To pay attention to their attitude and reactions in these conversations. Because all of this information is immensely helpful when trying to predict how they might behave and what their needs and preferences might be in the future.
My favourite activity to lead off with is to get a person to draw his or her job. It’s almost always difficult and involves many things going on at once. Multiple arrows pointing to all of the different responsibilities they have such as managing people, creating spreadsheets and ensuring deadlines are met. More often than not, an employee will struggle to provide a concise summary of her job, telling me the many things that she is responsible for with at least a hint of overwhelm.
Many people see themselves as mediators, connectors or bridges between two or more different groups. Some offer that they are representatives of the company brand, requiring them to operate within the organisation’s value set while at work. Even if it is different from their own- they describe it almost as an actor plays a role. And these complex descriptions only cover their work identities. What about the roles they play in their families, with friends, and in public versus when they are alone? At any one time, a person is likely identifying as a part of several groups.
Can we use identity as a determinant of needs?
In User Experience, we rely a lot on the information we find out about our users. Identifying a user so that we might predict his or her needs and cater to them with the digital services we create. To the best of our ability, we connect the dots between what they say and do and who they are with what they might need.
But “who they are” can be interpreted in so many ways and we need to ensure we get this right. In anthropology, you cannot discuss identity without bringing in culture and the social groups that a person belongs to. People belong to multiple groups that change depending on setting and situation and a person’s definition of his or herself is constantly changing. No wonder a lot of people struggle to figure out what they need. It’s hard enough to explain who they are!
They wear many hats.
We should use what we learn about people to inspire our design. But what I am arguing is that we need to change our focus away from traditional segmentation. It is nearly impossible to work out what a person needs based only on one group that he or she identifies with. Noting that a woman is over 60 years old does not tell us how computer savvy she is. A father is not always the family breadwinner. Just because a person lives in Melbourne, you cannot say for certain that he loves unpredictable weather. We can assume these things, but we might be wrong. And why bother with these assumptions when we don’t need to make them?
The key information we need requires digging into motivations and behaviours and refraining from making assumptions based on social group. At the very least, act with caution when creating solutions via generic segmenting. Ask questions like, “what is distinctly different about a resident’s motivations versus a visitor’s when coming to this website?” It might not make sense to send people to different websites or areas of a website right away. Perhaps a user just wants to know what events are happening in the city this weekend. Do we need him to stop and identify himself first or can we just show him the calendar?
Offer different content based on what a person’s question or desired task is, rather than who he is.
So what I’m suggesting is that we take the time to learn about user needs that cross the boundaries of our segments and question whether social group or segment really matters for each piece of content we create and place on our website. If we segment too early in the user journey choose the wrong categories, those that are not mutually exclusive or include overlapping needs (which is nearly always unavoidable), we are causing unnecessary stress and strain on the user when we force him to pick only one.
To summarise, I offer that a more appropriate way to divide your website users is not by identity, but instead by motivation. Rather than asking who they are, the questions become: What do they need? What are they hoping to do? Why? What are they expecting from you?