If you’re reviewing office design in 2021 you should start here. Stephen Bowden looks at applying a user-centred approach to office design.

Have you been asked the question “what should our office design look like”, or attempted to discover what your colleagues need from a new office design post-COVID-19?

From experience working with design teams ,a couple of things normally happen at the start of a new design process.

  1. Someone has an idea for a new design or service. The team assume it is a good idea and move straight to a requirements capture.The problem with this approach is the team are not checking if the new design or service they are working on is actually of use to the users they are designing for.The design team can then be passed a set of requirements for a design or service that is not needed.


  1. Someone has an idea for a new design or service. The idea is discussed with a few stakeholders and then tested via an online questionnaire or focus group.The main issue with moving straight into a questionnaire or focus group is that the group responsible for the new design end up validating what they already know.User research is about discovery and finding out what you don’t know about the users in question. Surveys and focus groups alone miss the messy reality of what people do rather than what they say they do.


Background to Contextual Research

A research approach to ensure you are placing the user at the centre of your design is called contextual research, which is a form of qualitative research.

The UK government define contextual research as:

Visiting people in their everyday environment (like their home, work or school) to observe how they do an activity.

When applying contextual research, the research team explore the design idea by getting a detailed understanding of the user’s meaningful activity.

As they research the meaningful activity, other user needs that are more useful and important to meet than the original design idea evolve, which on occasions changes the original design idea.

Four key points to explain contextual research:

  1. It can be used before surveys and focus groups to examine what people do, rather than what they say they do. Information gathered during data collection can be used to design focus groups and questionnaires.Questionnaires will provide you larger sample sizes, but the results are of little use if you have asked incorrect questions.Focus groups tend to focus on opinions rather than what is important as the important details are harder to articulate in a focus group. Participants do not have the advantage of the context of their work environment to aid the discussion.


  1. If the research team design questions for focus groups and questionnaires before completing contextual research, they miss out on key bits of information that are critical to the success of the design.Within contextual research you do not know what questions to ask until you start observing the users completing their daily tasks. A key point to remember here is that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know!’ Asking a question leads to another question in a way that you cannot predict ahead of time.


  1. Useful to understand a user’s real-time interactions, their “context of use” and their shifting needs over the course of a day.


  1. Useful for understanding the “messy reality”.


Contextual Research Process

The UK Government provide an excellence guide to contextual research here.

Below is a short summary of a similar research process you may consider:

  1. Set the research focus

Ben Holliday provides some great questions you should ask yourself to provide focus to the research.

– Why are we doing this work? What is out motivation for building the new design?
– Who are our users? Who will be using the new design?
– What outcome will users get from the new design? What problem will it solve for people?
What outcomes are we looking for? What problem will it solve for our organisation?
– What are our key metrics? What do we need to measure against these outcomes?

Albert Einstein famously said

“If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes finding the solution”

You need to ensure from the start of your research that you are not solving the wrong problem. The more time you focus on truly understanding what the problem is, the more chance you will have of success.

  1. Decide who to visit

A big mistake is looking to find the ‘average’ user. The average user does not really exist. Instead of thinking about the ‘average user’ theoretical sampling should be considered.

Your job as a user researcher is to discover what you do not know. The discovery process goes hand in hand with theoretical sampling whereby you select individuals and groups according to the expected level of new insights.

  1. Carry out the visits

You may have assumptions from the original design team meetings. This is the time to test those assumptions. Test those assumptions with the users during the interview process.

The purpose of the visit is to observe and interview the user in their own environment.

Alongside testing your assumptions, you are looking to:

  • Observe for long enough to ensure you make a fair assessment about what is going on
  • Find out the following during the interview:
  • The goals users are trying to achieve
  • How users currently do it
  • The parts they love or hate
  • The difficulties they experience along the way
  • The workarounds they use
  • Record the interview – You will need the recording to analyse the data
  • Take pictures of anything that surprised you
  1. Analyse the data

Analysing qualitative data is hard work.

User interviews produce vast quantities of data. You are looking for themes of an overall story in the data.

A common technique used to analyse the data is what’s called and Affinity Diagram. Here is an example of an Affinity diagram from a recent client Ocee Design.

Here’s the process to complete an Affinity diagram:

  • Understand your data. Listen to the interviews and look at any insights you gained during your observations.
  • Transfer observations for each user onto sticky notes. Focus on significant findings, key stories, behaviours, good design, bad design, workarounds, needs, goals, or anything else that surprised you.
  • Start your Affinity Diagram. Cluster similar findings from different users into similar groups.
  • Look for insights. Look into your clusters for key insights.

  1. Share the results

Designers require insights into the day in the life of the users they are designing for.

Insights are the key word. Provide lots of clear and concise insights instead of a long report that few people read.

In Summary

  • One key thought to keep in mind during the research – If you haven’t discovered you were wrong about some things, you probably haven’t completed the research correctly.
  • The context of use is key! Surveys and focus groups may miss the context.
  • An alternative method to surveys and focus groups is to examine what people do, rather than what they say they do. You can achieve this via contextual research
  • You don’t know what you don’t know!
  • Consider surveys and focus groups once you have a detailed understanding of the user and their meaningful activity.
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