How does user research work?
Answers to key questions for companies who are new to user research
Who needs user research?
Anyone who is designing new products and services needs to include user research (also known as UX research) as part of the design process.
What is user research?
User research is research designed to give you useful, actionable insights into the needs, attitudes and behaviours of the people who make up your target market(s) so that your design gives them a product or service that they need, like and will use. Its goal is to make your product a success. It’s carried out directly with the users and potential users of your products – research that doesn’t include actual users isn’t user research.
Research methods are broadly divided into two categories – qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative methods, such as interviews, focus groups and co-design sessions, are usually carried out with a small number of users and provide detailed, non-numerical data based around feelings, thoughts, descriptions, ideas and concepts. These methods are really useful for getting an initial in-depth understanding of your users, or for gathering high-quality feedback on an aspect of your design. Quantitative methods, such as surveys, analytics and formal experiments, provide numerical data, allowing you to measure and quantify changes and improvements, or validate findings from your qualitative research. For example, you may find that all the users you interviewed prefer to text rather than talk on the phone. A survey will help you to quantify how common this preference is among a wider sample of users.
Why is user research necessary?
Without user research, design decisions are likely to be made based on the assumptions and experiences of whoever is involved in creating the product or service. While they may have a lot of expertise and knowledge, it’s very unlikely that they’ll be able to accurately predict the needs and experiences of all your users. In fact, being an expert is often a disadvantage – designers and developers may assume a much higher level of knowledge and skill than users actually have, resulting in a design that causes frustration and annoyance. User research is necessary to understand the people you’re designing for – who they are, what they expect, what they need. Research allows you to make design decisions based on solid evidence, rather than on guesswork, greatly increasing the likelihood that your product or service will be a success.
When should user research happen?
Every project should start with user needs. Therefore, research should begin before before a single design is created – when the product or service is nothing more than an idea – and it should continue throughout the entire design process. At the very beginning of a project, research may tell you that you have a great idea with a huge market waiting (in which case the research results will be a key to getting sign off/funding) or it may tell you that you need to go back to the drawing board. If research doesn’t happen at this point, there is a danger that time, money and effort will go into developing a product or service in the wrong way or for the wrong audience. Once the design and development process starts, research should be carried out as and when new information is needed – do users understand this layout? Do we need to include more information? Ongoing research will allow you to make sensible, user-centred design decisions that ensures your product or service delivers what users expect, in a way that they understand.
Who should (and shouldn’t) carry out user research?
User research should be carried out by someone who has specific experience and knowledge of research with people – ideally someone who has formally studied social science research methods. Psychologists, social scientists, anthropologists and ethnographers tend to make particularly good user researchers as they have experience of examining, interpreting and understanding the complex elements of human behaviour. Research shouldn’t be carried out by people who are directly responsible for designing and developing the product, or anyone who has a vested interest in the success of a particular project or idea, because it is incredibly difficult for someone to remain impartial about their own work. The person carrying out the research should have the ability to interpret and present the findings with a high level of objectivity.
What’s the first step?
At Fowlam, we start every project by working with our clients to define, as clearly as possible, what they are trying to achieve. The aim at this point is to cut through any jargon and vagueness to get to the heart of what success really looks like for this product or service. This clarity is vital for unearthing any gaps in the team’s knowledge and to identify where research is needed to fill in those gaps.
It’s common for us to find at this point that the team have made a number of assumptions that aren’t backed up by any solid evidence – they’re based on hunches, feelings, ideas or a very limited range of experience. They may not even have been aware of the fact that they were dealing in assumptions rather than known facts – it’s only through a thorough examination of the ideas and information the product is built on that the team begins to realise just how much is unknown. In some cases it may not matter if an assumption is backed up by evidence or not, but for key assumptions – about who will use the product, where they will use it, why they will use it and how they will use it – it isn’t enough to go on a hunch or a feeling, it’s necessary to gather solid evidence. It’s at this point that we develop our research questions, which define what the research is trying to find out. These research questions are absolutely vital to ensuring that we gather clear, meaningful data that we can interpret to provide genuine insights. We then decide what methods will best deliver answers to those research questions.
What actually happens during the research?
Research at the beginning of the project, before the product has been designed, is generally carried out in two phases – a qualitative phase and and a quantitative phase. In the qualitative phase we use methods that allow us to get a good overview of the users of the product or service, such as focus groups, interviews, observations and co-design sessions. The qualitative phase alone can provide a huge amount of useful information about who the users are, where they tend to carry out a particular task (at work/at home/on the street), what they need, and what they are currently using. This phase can indicate whether the initial product concept is feasible or whether some fundamental changes need to be made. A quantitative phase, such as a survey, allows these findings to be tested with a larger group of users, providing a greater body of evidence and information to draw on.
If a prototype, Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or actual product exists, we may use the same qualitative and quantitative measures, depending on what the goals of the research are, as well as more product-focused user testing methods, in which users are asked to complete tasks using the product in order to identify which aspects of the product work well and which need to change. Naturalistic methods such as contextual inquiry, where a person is observed carrying out actual tasks using the product in the environment in which they would normally use it, have the benefit of providing a very detailed understanding of how the product functions in the real world. Lab-based approaches, where a user is specifically asked to test a piece of software, can be quicker and cheaper but tend to provide less in the way of rich detail.
User testing will generally reveal specific problems with the product, such as unclear wording on a particular screen or difficulties with the log-in process. It is a vital part of the research, and should be carried out whenever a feature is added or a design change is made to ensure that users can still complete tasks easily and efficiently.
What do you do with the results of the research?
This is arguably the most difficult part of the process – the part that requires the most knowledge and experience. It’s not enough to just gather lots of data, that data has to mean something to have a direct influence on the design of the product. This is where the research questions come into their own – if those questions were relevant and the research was carefully designed to answer them, then the data will provide a huge amount of insight into aspects of the design that are pivotal to the success of the product.
An experienced researcher will put together a coherent picture of what the research has revealed, which goes beyond simple statements and statistics and gets to the heart of what users need. As well as a full breakdown of the research, its results and a detailed list of recommendations, we also produce tools such as personas, job stories and user journeys, which provide a clear, concise way for the team to refer to the research throughout the design process. An iterative design process coupled with ongoing research will ensure that user needs are always kept in mind and that new features and design changes enhance rather than damage the user experience.
I’m interested, where can I find out more?
Our team loves to talk companies through the user research process, so if you think we can help, we’d love to talk to you. We can give you advice on whether research might help and on the methods that might be suitable. We can also help you to devise a UX strategy and carry out and analyse any research you need. If you’d like to tweet us a question, we’ll be happy to answer.
If you want to read more about user research, we recommend:
The Nielsen Norman Group website – hundreds of detailed, evidence based articles about all aspects of UX.
Observing the User Experience by Elizabeth Goodman, Mike Kuniavsky and Andrea Moed – a very comprehensive book covering a wide range of user research methods.
Measuring the User Experience by Tom Tullis and Bill Albert – this book is more focused on usability but also contains a lot of detail on methods and analysis.