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Storytelling mode

You can skip it if you want ;)

I am UI and UX designer on a LMS solution. An LMS is a CMS dedicated to digital learning purpose and sold to a wide range of clients. Some of them are companies that want to train their employees. Some of them are companies that resell it to other companies with graphical and technical support. Some of them are companies that distribute knowledge on various topics to people paying for an account. In all these cases, the largest amount of users are the learners, or as I'm used to call them: our clients' clients. But as the product maker there is a huge problem... we don't know them.

As a customizable solution, we provide the ability to change a lot of thing on the design to allow our clients to integrate it in the most seamless way possible. On user side the only thing that remains is a discreet copyright at the very bottom of the page. That's what our clients expect from us.

The thing with clients is... they are sure they know their users. They know what they want, what is good for them, what they need or don't need. On my side, I don't count the times I've been thinking 'oh man, they have removed this ultra-basic option/feature...'. Yeah, I'm living in a world of far-fetched demands from people you just can't say no.

End of storytelling mode

As an user experience designer, I'm not happy with listening to clients telling me what their users want. I believe in empathy, but I'm not convinced that telling a problem for someone else brings the same level of feedback - or the same feedback at all. But I'm trying my best to design a product fulfilling it's purpose : making the learning experience the best possible for those who actually want/need to learn.

So, for few months now I've been reflecting on what I can do to get users feedback directly from them, but I'm not very confident on my solutions :

  • The 'Give us feedback' form : quite common on digital products/services, I'm pretty sure our clients will strike it in almost every case. As they want to have the full control over the tool they are paying for, they'll want to be aware of everything and validate everything or better : rephrase it with their own words/ideas. You know them, don't you...

  • The 'Suggestion box' link : a lot of cool companies do it (Discord, Waze, Marvel App, ...) and it's a nice idea in my opinion. As the feedback form above, the clients reaction remains a problem but as it uses an external service (like Conflux or User Voice) I think it could work. Maybe. My main concern on this one is the frustration a tool like this could generate. The suggestions are visibles for everyone, and everyone can upvote anything. I'm worrying about the fact that the top-wanted features may not the planned on the roadmap for long months as our dev team is quite small and busy. Do you use a tool like this? What do you think about it?

  • The 'Personas' and 'Datas' research : I'm already trying to do something on this one. With the help of our Dev Team we are actually working solutions to get datas to know how our users are using the product, without collecting any personal data. This is a sensible topic and we're doing it on good intelligence to only focus on datas that are revealing for users experience purpose and nothing else. But it the end, it won't be enough.

And... that's all for now. I've totally excluded the possibility to ask our clients to send us their users since the interviews/focus groups are hard enough to set up with the clients themselves.

So... do you have any idea? Any feedback from you own experience? I'm open to your advices and solutions. Thank you!

(I hope this was readable and my english was not too hard to understand — this is an exercise I don't do often enough... ^^')

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This is a tough one, and not a unique problem at all. Direct access to users to carry out primary research is an exception, not the norm.

But don't let that stop you. There are likely many sources of secondary research you can leverage, maybe sitting right under your nose:

  • Product management often has customer needs documentation and business cases described in their work, in different forms. This stuff often includes real customer interviews or quotes and is every bit as useful as a persona document, maybe even more because the behavior they describe is not hypothetical or espoused.
  • Customer service and support cases often have details and patterns that emerge when those are analyzed across a large sample. Angry customers are highly motivated to include details and they usually do.
  • Competitive products' marketing and case studies usually do a great job connecting dots and describing products in terms of the problem they solve and for whom, so you can infer a fairly accurate sense of the "persona" the product you're working on is meant to serve
  • Social media and forums for specific domains are full of "users" from within that domain talking to one another in a way that is rich with context and common friction points. Think of it as poor man's contextual inquiry.
  • Server logs and analytics can provide answers, assuming you know what you're looking for. But from that data, don't expect patterns to jump out, you should have some rough idea of a question or phenomena you want to study

Start there. Even if you can't effectively do user testing with that secondary research, you can get your head around the domain well enough to ask sharper questions and try to unpack some of the comments that come back from "proxy" users.

Hopefully you're truly curious about the people you're designing for. If so, just let curiosity be your guide and try not to let too much stand in your way. There will always be hurdles to carrying out research, but research is how you A) know what the problem is in the first place and B) measure whether or not your solution works.

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