I first trained as a graphic designer. Before moving into User Experience design, user research seemed like a scary process. I believed (wrongly) it consisted in asking users what they wanted and designing just that without creative input or moral judgment. Since becoming a UX designer-researcher and conducting dozens of test, my understanding of user research has completely changed.
User research is not about asking users to fix a problem. It is about understanding the users and their needs in regards to a problem. Then you design a great solution, based on research and an array of other user experience techniques. In this article I will focus on user research.
Now you’re ready to conduct your research… but wait: what do you do? If you’ve never conducted research, read this article to understand what do to and when do to it.
2 broad phases of user research:
- research at the Discovery phase to…
- define the problem and real users needs
- gain insights to design the right thing
- research at the Design/Development phases: test several prototypes in order to…
- design in the right way
- understand how users are using the prototypes and pick the best one
This is the crucial phase where you gather information about users, theirs goals, needs, desires and motivations.
You’ve identified a (potential) problem.
In Discovery, you want to learn…
- How the users are currently solving the problem
- What users are finding difficult or dislike about their current behaviour
- The context of this behaviour
- What technology they use
- Ideally, you’d want to get this insight directly in the user environment, to understand the context of use
For instance, in my User Experience short course at University of the Arts, London, I gave students a broad problem: “Improve the student experience”. I knew it was too broad to solve quickly but I wanted my class to pick subjects they felt strongly about and could pick one themselves. So I facilitated a simple brainstorm exercise to narrow down the problem. The class came down with narrower issues they could easily interview students about: i.e. budgeting, motivation/time management, choosing a career/course path, socialising/going out, making the most of a course etc. Each team in the class picked one subject and started interviewing students to explore the problem.
Main methods you can use in Discovery
- Interviews: advice on interviewing on UX Matters
- Contextual research: tips on conducting contextual interviews on Usability.net
- Diary studies: or how to understand long-term behaviours by Norman Nielsen
What matters is that you get the principle right. Here are key principles adapted from Leisa Reichelt, head of Australia’s Gov research:
- Discover people, not project. Do not obsess over your idea of the solution or project, but unders the needs, how users are doing what you are trying to create right now.
- Discovering is for discovering, not prototyping: “Spend some time doing this [discovering users] at the outset of the project, and it’s much more likely that the thing you make will meet everyone’s needs and not just yours.”
- We all have assumptions. Write them down and test them (by asking/observing users). If you haven’t discovered some of your assumptions were wrong, you probably haven’t done it right.
- Go to the place your users are currently doing the thing you’re going to make better, and get them to show you how it works, what it looks like, how it makes them feel (user needs are both functional and emotional). Ideally with 6 to 8 users.
- Maps and stories are good things to make with user research in discovery. Discovery can be broad and intimidating. It is important to document your findings in simple terms, using maps and stories.
Once discovery is done, you can sum-up your findings, start prototyping and move on to ongoing user research.
Now you’ve discovered your users and their needs, you can start sketching/prototyping diverse solutions and test them on users.
The most popular technique at this stage is usability testing: it is relatively fast, inexpensive and simple.
With usability testing, you simply sit down with a user and ask her to perform key tasks. You ask her to think aloud as she perform the tasks.
- Assess how users are using competing products (you can test a competitor)
- Evaluate your design (throughout the design and development, from early prototypes to launch)
- Convince stakeholders/clients of the utility of user research, if they accept to attend the test.
- Decide what you want to find out
- Recruit users (you can do it yourself or use an agency)
- Design the tasks you want users to perform during the test
- Analyse data and present it
- if you use a recruitment agency, it could cost at least £120 (US$ 155) per user, including incentive
- if you’re recruiting yourself, you could spend about £50 (US $65)/user as an incentive (incentives vary depending on the type of users)
Not sure how to proceed? Steve Krug has published a handy interview script, checklist and other essential tools.
Mixing it up
Once you’ve identified the problem, you can also mix up interviews and usability testing.
- During an initial interview, you want to find out more about the users, their life, how they solve the problem: the context,
- Just after the interview, you conduct usability testing to test the validity of a solution (i.e. prototypes and competitors)
Exploring other methods
Here is a table of usability methods on Usability net.