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What are some good ways to assess how competent and comfortable our users are with technology? What baseline knowledge should we expect users to have?

This is a regular sticking point in my meetings with internal stakeholders. New, high-priority features are regularly proposed that assume the user has at least an intermediate understanding of technology. But then, worries arise that the new feature will be too difficult for non-technical users. I'd like to be able to say, "Our typical user is comfortable with X" or "Our typical user needs more help with Y," but I'm not sure how to gather that information.

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    Are you able to talk to conduct user interviews? If so, then ask them the top 5 apps they use, if they are on mobile devices (the platforms), the top 5 softwares they use, the top 5 websites they visit using which browser. – CleverNode Jul 13 '15 at 13:19
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    My best advice would be to implement some of these intermediate features and run them in an A/B test. From these you can assess if the average user is capable of using these features and after a few tests of different features of varying levels of difficulty you should have enough data to be able to extrapolate your users general comfort level. – DasBeasto Jul 13 '15 at 13:32
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    Is your team using personas? Developing personas may help you figure out where your users are in terms of technical sophistication. This would involve contextual inquiry (watch your users in their normal work environment), as well as user interviews of the kind Novina is referring to. Here's a link to an article on Usability Counts that describes the process of creating lightweight personas: usabilitycounts.com/2013/09/10/… – Joel Garfield Jul 13 '15 at 14:22
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    In addition to @Joel Garfield 's guide, app.xtensio.com has a REALLY easy to use tool to create persona. – CleverNode Jul 13 '15 at 16:40
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It's for these problems that it's important to have some sort of User Research done and follow a Goal-driven design approach if possible. This will help you answer some questions like:

  1. How does the proposed feature fits in the design requirements?
  2. Is this particular feature implemented by someone else and if yes, how are people using it? How are they reacting to it? Problems and frustrations with current usage.
  3. Mental model: how users think about their jobs and activities, as well as what expectations users have about the feature.
  4. Domain knowledge from a user perspective: what do users need to know to do their jobs?
  5. Defining your typical and atypical users - Personas.

    This will help you to understand the behavioural and technical patterns of concerned users. If you've a small product realization cycle, I would recommend going for Rapid Ethnography so that it will at least give you some idea about your users and the way in which they use the concerned product/features in a given context.

  • Thanks, Adit. I will take a look at those links - they sound really helpful. – mhick Jul 14 '15 at 12:11
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The ideal solutions have been mentioned already: User Interviews & Testing.

However, if you must put something tangible out in the wild, you could consider running the A/B tests. One option has the technical change presented, while the other does not. Let the results speak for themselves.

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