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I was recently hired for one of my first new projects and have been interviewing stakeholders. I got through the interviews with other people who work for the client, with no problems. However, the people I could interview are all other people who work on the site. They use the site from a contribution/moderation basis; they are not their target audience.

When I tried to interview external users, some of the client management told me, "You can't talk to them. Only we can." The people saying this are not UX people, so they do not know the right questions (or follow-up questions) to ask. I had already emailed many of these external users to ask for the interview and was only told this after the fact. The users I am trying to interview have a lot of influence in their organizations and can reach or speak for many other potential users. All I've been able to do with other external users is launch a quick survey, which should need a lot more respondents to really become useful.

What should I do to handle this situation well?

Edits suggested by @JohnGB:

My client is a volunteer organization that has a lot of youth participation. They've had some problems with some of their participants being rude/uncivil about and toward these other organizations. In effect, they're telling me I can't talk to these people directly as a way to protect them. I just think it's keeping me from doing my job as well as I can. The other organizations have huge user bases that I can access by interacting with these people.

My client is looking to expand their user base and social media reach. They maintain about 8 Facebook pages with ~4000-5000 likes among them. Most of the existing users match one of the personas I anticipate for the design. The other organizations have hundreds of thousands, or over a million, Facebook likes each. They represent a better cross-section of the general population in their areas. There's really good potential if I can reach that part of their target audience effectively.

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Firstly, it is a difficult situation to handle well. If your client doesn't want you to do the user interviews, you need to help them understand the impact that will have on the end product. You need to find out what matters most to the person making the decision and frame the problem in terms that matter to them.

Lets say that customer adoption is the most important issue to them. You then need to explain how not being able to do any user interviews yourself will impact the customer adoption.

In a related issue, you also should try to understand why they don't want you speaking to end users. If you know what that reason is, you may be able to find a solution that allows you to do this and keeps them happy. Until you have more information on this though, I can't offer anything more useful.

  • The reason why they won't allow it is that they said all communications with these people that I am trying to speak with needs to go through them. They are a volunteer organization that has a lot of youth participation. They've had some problems with some of their participants being rude/uncivil about and toward these other organizations. In effect, they're telling me I can't talk to these people directly as a way to protect them. I just think it's keeping me from doing my job as well as I can. The other organizations have huge user bases that I can access by interacting with these people. – David Jan 25 '13 at 14:17
  • To clarify: my client is looking to expand their user base and social media reach. They maintain about 8 Facebook pages with ~4000-5000 likes among them. Most of the existing users match one of the personas I anticipate for the design. The other organizations have hundreds of thousands, or over a million, Facebook likes each. They represent a better cross-section of the general population in their areas. There's really good potential if I can reach that part of their target audience effectively. – David Jan 25 '13 at 14:21
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    @David It would improve your question if you added that information to it. I can think of some possible approaches, but it will be more like a discussion, and this is not the place for that. Come into the UX chatroom and we can discuss. – JohnGB Jan 25 '13 at 14:57
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Find a way to do your interviews through the "gatekeepers" that are telling you that you can't do direct client interviews. In my software design career, I've run into this exact problem more than once. While initially frustrating, it doesn't have to be an impediment to your design process.

Make a focused effort to figure out exactly what you want to know from these "unreachable" stakeholders, then work with the gatekeepers to make sure that the questions are asked the way you need them to be asked, and that you get the answers in the depth that you need them. I've often been surprised with how accommodating people are once you reframe the situation into one in which they can actively help you instead of block you from doing your best for them and their affiliates.

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Could it be that it would be against privacy laws to reveal the names of these users (I assume they are at-risk youths) by putting you in touch with them? That's the same issue with users who of other sites that fall into the same category such as social services, victim support sites etc.

Since you've already mapped out personas, you probably have a certain demographic in mind. Reach out to people who work with youths (e.g. teachers, counselors, youth workers, friends and relatives) who could recommend young people you can talk to. They don't have to be involved with your client's organization. Working with youths for user research can be tricky because they might not be of age to consent as research participants that's why I'm suggesting informal meetings and present it like a "focus group" rather than user research or testing.

You can get the participants to put themselves in the shoes of your personas ("imagine you are a youth from a broken home...") and get them to answer your interview questions from that perspective. While they may not actually be a troubled youth, they can shed some insights on what a person of that demographic thinks about the website.

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