HT Design Studio
Human Technology. We improve the way people interact with websites, apps, and digital products.


We write about how you can ensure your customers have the best user experience possible using your website or digital product.

What Realtors Can Teach Us About User Experience Research

I’m always trying to come up with different ways of explaining the user research process. Sometimes clients or workshop attendees find the process confusing and are unsure of its outcomes. Often, their previous experience has not involved a defined process to building digital projects—whether those are websites, web apps, or mobile apps.

Recently I thought of my real estate friends and what interesting parallels there were to the world of user research and user experience design. In fact, user research—specifically ethnographic research—is part of a real estate agent’s daily life. It is rare that a user experience researcher is given the types of opportunities for such in-depth, unfiltered glimpses into users’ lives.


For example, realtors are able to see:

User’s unfiltered reactions—both their likes and dislikes
What designers and developers often lack is insight into user behaviors—what they actually do as opposed to what they say they do. Which makes sense because the product and marketing teams are sitting at their desks and the user is going about his or her daily life. Further, even armed with information from user interviews, the design and development team only get a portion of what users decide to tell them.

A realtor, in contrast, is far more likely to get the whole picture. Because house hunters trust their realtor, they are more likely to give honest reactions to the homes they tour. They don’t feel like they need to hold back—the homeowner is usually not present. In fact, their honest feedback will help the realtor identify homes that may better fit their criteria. Frustratingly, people often aren’t able to articulate what works for them or doesn’t work for them until they experience it (much to a realtor’s dismay, I’d imagine)—the same sort of issue we have in user experience research.


What’s the user experience research solution?

For user experience researchers, the end goal is to get as much honest insight into user needs and behavior as possible. Our constraints are time, budget, and the fact that people aren’t always as forthcoming about this information as we’d like. We balance this by:

  • Doing user research online where we can get unfiltered information from potential users in places like forums and reviews.
  • Crafting interview questions carefully, in order to get the most accurate information. I've written more about this here.
  • Doing ethnographic research.


Where users focus their attention

Sometimes what a user/house hunter says they want differs from where they actually focus their attention. A house hunter may say they want a newer, modern home with minimal maintenance, yet fall in love with the details and craftsmanship of a turn-of-the-century Victorian. In user research, it’s incredibly common to hear users request certain features only to find out that they don’t actually use or value them.

Realtors also witness instant, emotional reactions (“I could see myself living here,” or “this home just feels right”). Because realtors get this information after they (presumably) have toured quite a few homes with their clients, they can identify what factors contribute to that emotional reaction. In user research and usability studies, we’re often talking about or testing just one website or app, so it’s far more difficult to get the context necessary to understand emotional reactions—something users have difficulty articulating as it is.


What’s the user experience research solution?

Understanding behaviors, which are not always rational, is important in understanding what aspects of the user experience make or break a user’s connection with the website or app. For user experience researchers, this feedback helps to inform what to focus on to improve a website or product or what new feature to build. Observing behavior, as opposed to expecting users to explain their behaviors (which often they aren’t aware of or can’t articulate), is ideal. User experience researchers can do this a few ways:

  • Review website/app analytics to see what people are actually doing (while keeping in mind this isn’t the WHOLE picture. You still need to figure out WHY people are doing the things they are doing).
  • Conduct usability studies to watch representative users perform tasks on a website/app.
  • Observe people in their environment (at work, home, school, etc. depending on what you’re researching).


Where users ultimately put their money

Nothing proves what a house hunter truly values more than what home they ultimately purchase. All the factors that go into a huge investment are weighed and a decision is made. Home buyers factor in the practical concerns (location, school district, size, amenities, budget, etc.) along with emotional factors (the home reminds them of their childhood, they feel safe in the home/area, the neighborhood is perceived as prestigious, etc.)
While your company’s product or service likely costs much less than a house, a similar decision process goes on in your customers’ minds. The difficulty is tapping into that process.


What’s the user experience research solution?

The answer to this will likely come from a variety of sources, forcing you to put together the pieces to solve to puzzle:

  • Talk to representative users about the competition. If you know you are losing clients to your competitors, figure out why. The answers may not be rational or they may be deeply layered—so you’ll really need to be careful in selecting your questions.
  • Ask clients or prospective clients how they went through a recent decision making process—to choose your service or product or your competitors’.
  • If possible, do a usability test on your competitor’s product or website. Where can you do better? How can you differentiate your company?

A parting question: when was the last time you spoke to a customer or potential customer about their experience? If the answer is “it's been a while,” then consider the wealth of user research a realtor gets in a day. How can your company gain that type of information?