General Assembly at the moment are running a series of free introductory seminars in various specialist areas. They’ve been great, I’d definitely recommend signing up to a couple if you have the time.

Last week I went to one on user experience design and I thought I’d share a highlight of the session.

Usually when a speaker says “I’d like you to get into pairs” I get an internal sense of dismay. After all, if I relished opportunities to make awkward chat with humans I didn’t know, I wouldn’t be working in digital.

However, what I have realised over the last five years is how much I love user research, and fortunately that was the task we were set in this session.

We had five minutes to imagine we were working on improving the Citymapper app and run user testing with the person next to us about their experience of using it, in order to make informed recommendations about what could be improved.

The most interesting challenge with my partner, I’ll call him Adam, was that he was very distrustful of apps generally, particularly apps that asked for access to his location. He felt ill-informed about how his data might be used, and uncertain about the location-driven apps he downloaded having access to other areas of his phone.

Adam had never used a travel app, when I asked him about the methods he preferred for navigating London, he said he would use the TFL website. This started as a productive line of enquiry as we went through the way he used the site, but it soon became clear that he didn’t have very high expectations of TFL, it was simply ‘fine.’

Fine was enough for Adam when it came to maintaining his digital privacy. When I asked him how he would get around outside of London, he said he would ask for directions or take a printed map of his journey – that was how strongly he felt about protecting his identity online.

Thinking about the app design brief, I wanted to get to more than ‘fine’ with Adam, I wanted to know what would make a digital experience great for him. So I started asking him about his favourite non location based app.

It took him no time to get out his phone and show me a radio product he loved, and the most interesting thing about this was how much of what he said could be applied to the development of the Citymapper app.

On the radio app’s home screen, there were six content categories – things like ‘popular now’ ‘stations’ and ‘favourites.’ Though the ‘favourites’ option was in the bottom left corner, not the usual position of popular actions, Adam went straight to it and started showing me around. This indicated how important personalisation was to him, something really useful to explore with users in the context of the Citymapper app.

I then asked him to show me how I might use it as a first-time user, to get an idea of the journey he might have been on when he first signed up, and what he liked about that.

He showed me the search function and commented on how good the app was at returning exactly what he was looking for really quickly – another useful insight for apps more generally. The interesting thing about that search function was how it remembered his latest query and then made suggestions on what his next one might be.

He said he found this feature surprisingly accurate and  that it had introduced him to new stations he wouldn’t previously have come across. It was clear from this that he had begun to trust the app and let it guide his behaviour and propensity to try new things – another great example of something that could be explored more generally in the development of other platforms.

The whole task was a great reminder that good digital experiences come from putting the person before the product. To learn these things in five minutes made me really excited about some user testing I’m running for Breast Cancer Care next week. If you haven’t done any for a while, I hope this can be some inspiration!