User Research – Product and Service Innovation: An interview with Jamie Young, Co-Founder and Designer of Homely
The aim of User Research – Product and Service Innovation series of interviews is to act as a source of inspiration and information about the role of user research. We have just started working on the series of interviews and if you would like to be interviewed please do not hesitate to contact Richard Linington.
Hi Jamie could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Homely?
Sure. I’m one of two co-founders behind Homely, an early-stage startup company that aims to make it easier for homeowners to make their homes more efficient. My role at Homely involves designing and delivering services that homeowners love to use. Before starting Homely, I worked as a researcher for a think tank in London, and before that I worked as a design engineer for an SME in Hampshire.
What is Homely?
We help people figure out what they could do to make their home warmer and more comfortable, we also walk them through the government schemes and grants that might be available to help them fund those home improvements – and lastly we help them make contact with energy efficiency professionals who can give more detailed advice or actually deliver energy-saving work.
We’ve also got a couple of other ideas up our sleeve that we’re keen to start prototyping soon, now that we’re into the autumn and people are thinking about their energy bills!
Could you provide an overview of the design process you used to move from identifying and defining the opportunity through to the development and testing of Homely?
I guess there are a few principles that have under-pinned our development of Homely. For example we try to be people-centred: we use design research techniques (like card sorting and paper prototyping) to make sure we’re developing a service that our users would find useful and enjoy using. We’re also keen on prototyping (or developing ‘minimal viable products’ as those in the lean startup world would call it): so we started with a simple Google forms website, then tweaked our ideas and graduated to off-the-shelf WordPress templates. Those early sites didn’t look very professional – but they did their job – which was to help us assess demand for our initial ideas. Now that we have some confidence that we’re on the right track, we’ve also invested more in the visual design of our site – I think most people now expect the digital services they use to look good as well as work well.
What role has user research played in the design and development of the Homely user experience?
As I mentioned, listening to our users is important to us: it’s definitely shaped our ‘offer’. One of the early ideas that we were keen on was a kind of ‘match.com’ for homes, in which we’d try to pair homeowners with homes that were similar but had different levels of efficiency, allowing the owner of the less efficient home to learn from the owner of the more efficient home and so on. Through user research we realised that there were other features that homeowners wanted that they’d value more highly that this, so we decided to concentrate on those instead.
Did you face any particular challenges when carrying out user research?
User research takes time, and it can be disheartening when an idea you think is brilliant doesn’t sit well with your users – but I’m convinced it’s the right way to develop a business. Finding the right people is one challenge: for example we’re always keen to chat with people considering energy-efficient home improvements or renovations. Interpreting the results can also require you to read between the lines: few startups have budgets for large scale quant surveys, so being able to interpret qualitative findings from interviews and design research exercises is important.
The last thing I’d mention is that I don’t think good design should blindly follow the outputs of user research. Both Steve Jobs and Sir Alex Issigonis warned of the danger of focus groups and committees ruining good design. I think that, when you’ve got a good idea of what your users want, it’s up to the designer to fulfil that need – but not necessarily in the way that the user expected.
Jamie, perhaps we could end on something about the next steps for Homely?
We’ll be shortly launching the next iteration of our website, along with some analysis (the Cosy Index) of 380 councils across Britain, and how well-insulated the homes in their area are. As I mentioned earlier, there are also a few other services we’re keen to prototype.
Back to the design and innovation interviews.