Successful products simply are not built without some form of user research.
The majority of the digital products utilized today have been extensively user researched. While visual design and technology also play a role in the user experience, user research is crucial. My aim is to provide a high-level overview of the importance of User Research while citing some specific processes and tools.
“Successful products are created by designers that know their users. Everyone else is designing in the dark.” – Jerry Cao, UXPin
What is User Research?
User Research is the process of understanding a user’s behavior, need, and attitude using a variety of observation and feedback collection methods. It helps us understand how people live their lives so we can respond to their needs with informed solutions.
Why is User Research Important?
User research is a critical part of User Experience (UX) design. Best practices suggest that User Research should be used throughout every stage of a product’s design cycle. Time and time again, products without some level of research, fail.
That is why it is critical to have research included in the development of any product. Without it, you most likely will end up with the wrong product for the wrong user. Plus, it is likely to cause problems that are almost impossible to reverse.
“UX without Research is not really UX.” – Hoa Loranger, Nielsen Norman Group
Target Outcomes of User Research
- To understand your product’s current or prospective users.
- To create empathy with the end user.
- To learn about the user’s thoughts, feelings, and frustrations.
- To find ways to satisfy the user’s requests.
- To liberate yourself from biases.
How to Conduct User Research
Now that you know why user research matters, let’s dig into some simple methods to perform your own User Research.
A Simple Framework
- Define the Objective: Before beginning the design phase, you need to understand the business objective as well as the target outcome you are working toward. One way to simplify this process is to ask the question: “How might we?”
- Define the Hypotheses: What are some assumptions you have made about the product and its target user? Let’s say the objective is creating a social network for outdoor sports. Here are some possible hypotheses:
- Our target user likes the outdoors and the community surrounding it.
- Hiking, running, and cycling are among our users’ common activities. Our target users spend weekends and mornings engaged in outdoor sports.
- Our target users are likely to interact less with niche social networks such as Facebook or Twitter.
- Our target user generally asks friends, family, and coworkers about outdoor sports and other related information.
All of these hypotheses sound okay, but the only way to know if they are on the money is by testing them with users.
- Determine Research Methods: There are several methods that can be used to understand the target user. When deciding the right method we must consider time, budget, accessibility of users, etc. We must define the questions and any ancillary data that can help us get answers to questions we have about our user.
- Conduct & Collect: Once we define the methods, it’s important to ensure you are conducting the interviews in the proper way that make the interviewee comfortable enough to answer without bias. This article from UX Matters provides some good tips on how to conduct great interviews. While performing interviews it is important to always capture the data to be reviewed by other stakeholders. Screen and audio recordings help to ensure nothing is lost in the process.
- Synthesize & Measure: Once collected, we need to make sense of the data in order to ensure it is used properly in the user experience design process. Once the data is clear, we can set metrics and KPIs to measure the success of our findings. Now we have a consistent feedback loop to use for consistent feedback.
Common Methods for User Research
- Interviews: These enable us to observe users in their natural environment, giving us a better understanding of who they are and what makes them tick.
- Surveys: These are cheaper and a fast way to extract data from users. They are less precise than interviews but also provide valuable data.
- Field studies: These observe users in their natural habitat by actually experiencing their work environment.
- Card sorting: A unique way to create the information architecture. We put content into cards and ask users to sort those into groups.
- Tree testing: Similar to card sorting with a bit more detail. Here the user actually creates the sitemap by the data they are given.
- Prototyping: Here we see how users interact with the product by observing them while they use it.
- Focus Groups: A discussion with a group of users, allowing us to learn about user attitudes, ideas, and desires.
“The great myth is that you need to be a good talker. Conducting a good interview is actually about shutting up. This can be very hard, especially when you’re enthusiastic about the topic.”
– Kevin Cornell, A List Apart
Overall Tips for User Research Interviews
The goal is to learn as much as you can about your interviewee… what will influence them while using your product. Not to worry- being a good interviewer gets better with practice.
Before the interviews
- A brief description of the topic so you will stay on topic during the whole process. E.g. The goal of this interview is to understand their pain points and their expectations while doing X.
- Background info about interviewees to use in the warm-up phase especially about their profession. E.g. If you are going to do the interview for an outdoor sports mobile app, do real research before facing to the interviewee.
- Demographic data. (Name, age, sex, location, job title, and role)
One of the crucial parts of the interview process is recruiting the right interviewees. You should be aware of the objective of the interview and stick to it. e.g. I am testing the new flow of the mobile application for academics and want to see if it works.For this type of product, you can segment your users into categories, such as; five people from higher level instructors (professors, PhDs, etc), five people from mid-level(assistants, section instructors, etc), five people from students. The key is to distribute interviewees from the focus group homogeneously so not to jeopardize the results. Also, you should be aware of their demographic data.
- What can you offer a user to participate in a study? (Gift card, cash, etc)
- What are the key characteristics of the users I wish to talk to?
- Develop screening questions to ensure you are interviewing the proper user. A target outdoor social network user may have Facebook and spend more than 2 days a week performing some outdoor activity. Google Ventures provides this great example.
Next, create a Trello board or spreadsheet to track the candidates as well as rating criteria such as demographic, rating level based on screening questions. There is always the risk of a no show with an interviewee, so shoot to recruit 7 people if your target is 5.
Three Phases of an Interview
- A Friendly Welcome: People need to feel comfortable to be open and honest. Warm up the conversation with small talk about daily life. Also, don’t forget to get their consent to record the whole interview.
- Context Questions: Make the transition from introduction to real questions. Don’t ever rush. Go slowly from the personal questions to those addressing the objective. If you do it right, there will be a natural flow.
- Conclusion: After you are done with everything you need to ask, wrap up the conversation and remember to express your appreciation to your interviewee for their time.
Some tips for the interviewer
- Stay away from leading with questions. This is most common mistake people tend to make while doing interviews. Instead of “How good is trekking in cloudy weather”, ask something like this “How do you like trekking in cloudy weather”. This way, you are leaving open space for your interviewee to tell his/her thoughts, either good or bad.
- Do follow up questions. If some of the answers are not enough for specific questions, don’t be shy and follow up with more questions, like- “Can you tell me more about X?”
- Keep silent for specific moments. When your interviewee pauses while answering your question, don’t rush to fill gaps when there is silence. Leave some space for your interviewee to think about their answer.
- Don’t read questions, engage with your interviewee. And finally, do not ask your questions as if you are reading from a script, be a real person, not a robot. If you read the questions, the formality could affect your interviewee’s
honesty and openness.
- Make sense of the data After having everything on paper, (we love pencil and paper) at Nolte, we use Trello kanban boards for organizing notes. You can find that template provided by Trello and modify it for your needs. After we get
everything we need from our interviews, we will merge those with the other data we have gathered from our other research. Then we can compare those notes and observations, group common findings, sort discoveries by importance and severity, and outline some actionable insights to follow up on.
Tools for Performing an Interview
1:1 Offline Interviews Offline interviews are always better when you can observe an interviewee’s actions, thoughts, and feelings.
1:1 Online Interviews Online interviews have their own benefit. Being able to connect with people around the globe while utilizing the benefits of online software is a big plus. Google Hangouts, Skype, Appear.in are some of the tools that you can use for video conferencing or simply to make a phone call.
To sum this up, give the utmost attention to user research in your product development process. People have different habits, problems, attitudes, frustrations in their life. As a UX designer, it’s our job to dig in and understand them and leave our biases behind. It is the only way to deliver the right solutions for the products we build.