What is user research & how do we do it?

user research
(Last Updated On: March 5, 2018)

User research is about understanding users behaviour, motivations needs by observing them do tasks or other feedback methodologies. This valuable information can be used to improve your products overall design and experience by informing your design decisions with real user understanding. User research can tell you if your product is wanted in the market and how to make it compelling. Imagine if two identical companies where building a product, one did user research and one did not, you can imagine how valuable actual user feedback could be to the success of any product.



User research misconceptions

People tend to think of user research is slow and expensive, they might also think it’s pointless or that users do not know what they want. It might be true that users don’t know what they want, but user research is not about asking users what product you should make. As Steve Jobs once said:

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” 

While user research can be inexpensive and fast, which I will go into later. It absolutely has a big point and benefit to any design stage, it’s about finding out what your users need from your product and what motivates or compels them. People can’t explain why they behave a certain way or what will make them tick but they can show you, as long as you are asking the right questions, watching and listening.



user research

The value of user research

Good user research will tell you all kinds of things, some obvious but some surprising. Knowing the basic demographics of your users is nowhere near the quality of feedback and understanding you will get from actual research with users. When you do it right you’ll learn who your true competitors are, user motivations, frustrations and the journey they take when using your product.

“Your true competition might not be who you think it is”

If you’re Nestle selling Mars bars, your competition is not always Snickers. It’s going to be other snack options like fruit or nuts, this can be the same of all different kinds of products and you might not realise until a user stutters it out in a user interview.



Qualitative vs Quantitative

There are 2 main kinds of user research that could be done and they both have a place in the UX Designers toolbox. Neither of them is extremely costly or take up a dramatic amount of time.

The qualitative method involved getting up close the users, meeting them and working together to understand them. This might be interviews, focus groups or usability studies, as a best practice it is suggested that you need at least 5 people for any qualitative method.

The quantitative method is what you think, lots more users but from afar. Here you might use email surveys, analytics, metrics or feedback websites. Here you want a minimum of 100 users but in this case, the more the merrier, using data to understand anything requires larger numbers.



User Research Methods

There are many different user research methods, use as many as you need to get to understand your users. Some products will require different methods, I will go into details below about each one but here is the overview:

  • Basic User Interview: Sitting down with your users and asking questions to understand what they need at any stage of design.
  • User-Guided Fantasy: A unique style of research done with prospective users, using imagination and focused on one question.
  • Observation & Understanding: One of the most important parts of user research is the ability to observe and understand your users.
  • Usability Test: This is probably the most valuable user research you can do, get people to use your product and get direct feedback.
  • Focus Group: This is more of a meeting, sharing ideas and getting general feedback from a group of targeted users.
  • Tree/Card Text: A good method for figuring out site structure and user flows.
  • A/B Testing: Not only useful for proving designs and metrics but also testing ideas and informing decisions.
  • Surveys & Questionnaire: A great way to get a lot of feedback, just make sure you ask the right questions.



user research

Basic User Interview

People don’t tend to blurt out all kinds of useful information unless prompted so you’re going to want a script with some great questions and be ready to go off script when you see a good opportunity to learn more. You will want different questions depending on if they are an existing user or just someone you might be interested in your product.

Not all questions have to be so direct right off the bat, you need to break the ice and warm people up. Get them in the mind frame of when they use or buy the product. Let’s say for example we have questions for someone who bought and has used our product:

  • When did you purchase the product?
  • Where were you?
  • What time of day was it?
  • How was the weather?
  • Was anyone with you?
  • How did you purchase the product?
  • Did you buy anything else at the same time?

Once you have them talking and open, you can start using more informative questions and try to dig a little deeper:

  • When did you first realise you wanted the product?
  • Where do you use the product?
  • How did you find out about it?
  • What were you doing at the time?
  • What was your first impression when using it?
  • What other products did you try?
  • Did you look for other solutions for your problem?
  • Do you feel like our product solved your problem?

There are literally thousands of questions you could ask and there are some great resources online if you need help finding the right kinds of questions to ask. For me, it’s all about breaking down the social boundary and getting people to relax. Once we have people relaxing and chatting this is when we can get all the useful information out of our users. Finding peoples problems, needs and frustrations is the goal of the interview. This kind of interview could be anywhere from 15 minutes up to an hour, depending on chattiness.

Interview Question Bonus Tips: Don’t ask leading questions, Ensure your users are the right target audience, use neutral words and be aware of the emotions the interview and situation can create. Also, you can say you are not the designer, this will avoid people feeling bad for giving negative feedback. Always ask why, why and why.



The Different Types of User Interviews

There are a few ways you can go about executing your user interviews depending on the kind of information you need.

Directed Interviews: This is like the basic interview method above, defined questions and objectives with a simple interview with a user. This is a good way to get a lot of useful data for specific questions to later compare across all the users you interviewed.

Non-Directed Interviews: This is a looser and more open method for the interview, we might just write down a rough guide for the interview rather than specific questions and let the convocation be open to go where-ever it goes. Try to keep in in the ballpark though and avoid talking about football for too long.

Ethnographic Interviews: This would involve observing users in their day to day lives and trying to understand their natural habitat. The user might explain their day, what products they use, how they perform specific tasks and identify any gaps or potential product ideas. It can also help to understand their work/home life culture as well as what your users do when they feel at home.



User-Guided Fantasy

I heard about this quite recently and it’s a pretty unique kind of user research, the general idea is the let the user imagine the perfect product. So you can sit down with your user in front of a black computer screen and ask them to imagine a product. You should have one overall question in mind like “How do you imagine an app that lets you send money to your friends or family easily” (for example) Once you have them imagining such a product you can then ask questions about how it would work and function. If you ask people to imagine the perfect version of a product you are trying to make you will learn a lot about your product and what users expect. Ask more questions and try to get people to dig deep into their imagination, this should take no longer than 15 minutes depending on how talkative your user is.



Observation & Understanding

One of the keys to getting the most out of any user interview session is the ability to observe a user in the right way. You have to pay attention to their reactions, emotions and try to pick up on the subtle signs that things are good or bad. It’s important to be unbiased when observing users reaction and behavior. You also need to understand peoples own bias and mental models. For example, if you ask someone “How much does it cost to drive from London to Manchester” You would get very different answers if someone drives a Prius to the person who drives a BMW M3. The point is people will have mental models (bias) and understanding those will help inform your designs.



Usability Testing

Usability testing can be the best way to understand how people interact with a product, what they get stuck on and what questions they have. The idea here is you let them use your product, so for a website you might sit them in front of a web prototype or maybe even get them to imagine interacting with wire-frames or sketches. There are a few ways we can go about conducting  a good usability test:

Flash test: In this method, we show them a screen for maybe 5 seconds and ask “what do you remember about the screen?” or “what stood out the most?” if the thing you want to stand out the most is not the answer it might be time to rethink the design.

Expectations: When a user is interacting with the product it’s important to know what the user expects to happen if what happens isn’t what they expect then there is an issue with your product. Sometimes this can be as simple as misleading CTA text or the word “cancel” instead of “back”.

Interpretation: This applies a lot with icons or the language used for buttons or links. “what do you think this button means?” or “what do you think this icon does?” Sometimes labels might not be the prettiest thing, but they might make your users life a lot easier.

Tasks: This is the most important part of the test, where we give users tasks and scenarios to see how they go about doing those tasks. Make sure you keep the tasks simple and short to not overwhelm your users. If users perform simple tasks you could start to ramp up to more complex tasks. It is a good idea to plan out your tests but also asks users questions.

Feedback: A good idea is to ask your users how they find each test or task, ask them to give a difficulty score from 1-5 for example.

Talk: Talk to your user as they test and get them to tell you what they are thinking and why they choose to do the things they do.

Record or Take Notes: If you can record the session that’s always great, if not take notes of everything, reactions, emotions, questions, answers, problems, solutions, ideas, everything! If you can record the screen, the audio and face of the user that’s the best you can do. Suggestion: You can use software like OBS which will allow you to record a webcam as well as the screen and audio at the same time.

One of the most important things is to be pleasant and thankful to your user in the test, there are no right or wrong answers. Thanking them for highlighting issues will make them feel like even if they did something wrong it was a positive thing.



user research

The Different Types of Usability Testing

There are a few well-known types of usability testing methods that can be very effective depending on time frame, budget and your resources.

Moderated usability tests: This is the most common type of usability test where a designer or researcher would sit in with a user and run through a set of tasks and monitor the user’s responses, problems and issues. You may also have other watching from outside and if you want to get really serious you might have a 2-way mirror. The interviewer would talk to the user and get the user to talk about their experience and thoughts as they use the product.

Unmoderated usability tests: This kind of test is normally done at the users own pace and time, maybe on their own computer with a specific set of tasks. they might record their own screen and audio to give researchers content to look back on for review. Normally you’d still want your user to speak allowed and share their thoughts. There are sites where you can set up this kind of testing and people will perform the test and a pretty low cost.

Guerilla Test: This can be a mix of the two above the only difference if you would be out in the world, maybe in a coffee shop asking someone if they wouldn’t mind spending a bit of time talking about a product and offer them a coffee. You might be in a potential user’s natural habitat and observing them in their day today. This can be a great way to meet people and get some user feedback if your employer doesn’t want to do the above. Note, the information gained might not be too amazing and finding willing people might be hard for introverted people.



Focus Groups

The idea behind a focus group is to get variable user insight early in the project, so if you want to pitch a new idea or find out about how specific audience uses current products. This is a great way to get a lot of information about your users and the types of products they want to see and currently use. It can also give you a clear idea of your target market as well as gather opinions on ideas and concepts.



Tree / Card Test

This method is more used when trying to figure out site structure and user flows. Its great to get insight from users about where they would expect to go to perform certain tasks. So you could use cards or draw on paper and try map out where the user expects to go to get certain tasks done or to find specific information.



A/B Testing

I think we all know A/B testing, have variations of a design. 50% of people see A, 50% see B, and using analytical data determine a winner. It’s a great way to win a bet, loser buys the drinks! It’s also the best way to validate design as well as learn what works and what doesn’t.



Surveys & Questionnaires

If you have existing users a survey can be an extremely effective way to get a lot of data fast, you must ask the right kinds of questions that will give answers you can use to inform your design. In this scenario people will be very honest, so asking the right questions is key. If you do not have existing users a more general survey about potential products, concepts or product problems could work very well.



If I had to pick one?

It would have to be the usability testing, it’s just the best thing you can do and it has the most bang for your buck. It allows you to iterate, test, iterate, test and rapidly finding problems and build solutions. You’ll learn more about your product this way and build a better product with this method more than any other.



Conclusion – How does this make a product better?

The research builds the foundation of a good product, it affects the entire experience, product and overall success of that product. The lessons we can learn from understanding our users will pay itself back 10x I believe.



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