Why and what is user research ?

User research focuses on understanding user needs, wishes, goals, motivations and behaviors through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies. Conducting user researches helps the team make design decisions based on real data. Everyone on the team(including product managers, designers & engineers) should be encouraged to conduct user research if possible to justify their decisions.

Having the entire team involved in user research turns out really helpful for the team to make informed decisions and also ensures that everyone is on the same page and are included in the process. Conducting user research increases the empathy that the entire team has for the end users.

User research makes your product better and provides opportunity for innovation. The goal of user research is to have a usable product. But what is usability ? There are two definitions for a product being usable one is the black and white definition and the other is the shades of gray definition. Black and white definition - Can users accomplish their goals with your product. Shades of gray definitions - How easily and successfully can users accomplish their goals with your product ?

User research techniques

User research can be conducted in a number of ways and knowing when to use one particular kind of user research technique is very important. Some of the well know user research techniques are listed below:

  • Card sorting
  • Usability testing
  • User interviews
  • Personas
  • Expert reviews
  • Diary studies
  • Lean UX research techniques

Card sorting

This technique is useful in evaluating the information architecture. In this technique participants organize topics into categories that make sense to them and they may also help you label these groups. This gives an idea about how your users organize and group related information in a way that makes sense to them.

Usability testing overview

The idea behind this technique is that you ask a member of your target audience to do a couple of tasks with your product and observe how they work. The goal of the usability test is to evaluate the product’s design. To identify what is working and whats not. This is one of the most persuasive and effective techniques for getting stakeholders excited about design improvements. The testing process is divided into multiple phases:

  • Test planning
  • User recruiting
  • Task design
  • Moderation
  • Analyzing the data
  • Communicating the results

In test planning you first write a test plan and then run a test planning meeting with the stakeholders to understand what you would want to learn from the usability study. Then we find and recruit people whom we would like to test. We create tasks i.e things that we are going to ask the users to complete with the product and then we moderate or facilitate the test session, making observations and taking notes along the way. After running all the test sessions we analyze the data and communicate the results to the team.

User interview overview

This is one of the best techniques that can be used for gathering information about the user needs, wishes, goals, motivations and behaviors. This is a technique that is recommended to be conducted in early phase of product development. This is useful in the early stages where you need to figure out how the product should be. It is advised to get the product team out of the office at the user’s environment.

This is a process and technique particularly describes as contextual inquiry, also called sometimes as field study. When the team in on the user’s location they get to see and observe the behavior of the user in their natural environment. In this way the team can understand the challenges and frustrations that the user would face.

This isn’t necessarily frustration with the product, it can also be frustration with the environment.The team will also get an idea about how technology fits into the user’s daily life, information like gadgets they use, internet speed etc. The team will also learn about the user’s attitude and preferences.

Personas overview

Persona is a profile of an typical user synthesized from the user research and user interviews one has been conducting. It is a very effective means of communicating out the everything from the research to the product team. Personas are the best way one can communicate about the results out from the user interviews. It is important to understand that it is a description of a typical user but a fictitious user. It is aggregated from all of the user research and interviews conducted. It is one of the best technique for injecting everything you have learned about the user needs into the product process. So essentially we take the information gathered from the user interviews and aggregate that information looking for patterns about who these users are to create the persona description.

Expert review overview

This is often called as a discount product evaluation method as it is quick, efficient and relatively inexpensive. This takes less time and resources compared to user interviews and usability testing. The idea behind a expert review is you will have a third party experienced UX expert come in and evaluate your design based on their experience. You would typically bring in an experienced professional ideally someone experienced in user experience or someone who has a very good knowledge about the domain.

If the design team is already following some well know design pattern or principles then this can help in identifying whether the product is adhering to the principles. If there is enough bandwidth the its is recommended for teams to start out with user interviews and usability testing, but expert reviews when conducted well can provide excellent feedback.

There are basically two ways in which expert reviews can be conducted one is using heuristic evaluation which compares the product’s design in alignment with rules of thumb and seeing how well the product adheres to those rules. The other method is called as a task based review which is based on what you have already learned about users and your personas. The idea behind this technique is that you walk through your product as the persona or user completing the scenarios and tasks with the product.

Diary study overviews

This technique is very useful when you want to gather feedback and insight about the user’s behavior over time. It is a record or report kept by a user over time period of time, it can be for a day or week or a month sharing their experience with the product and how their behavior has been. The studies work best when you remind the user via an email or SMS etc to prevent a high percentage of dropouts and increases the response rates. The study can be unstructured or structured.

Unstructured diary study is when the users report informally, but adding some structure here can bring more success. In a structured study is the one in which you send out a questionnaire or a survey to the user on a regular consistent basis to get their report back or another type of a structure study is the one in which you will have users complete specific tasks with the product and ask them to report on how they completed the task, what was working well and how their behavior changed.

Lean research technique

There are some quick way to get started with running user researches. Some of such techniques are listed below:

  • 5 second tests
  • First click tests
  • Comprehension test
  • Task cataloging questionnaire
  • Catalog-based tests

The 5 second test just takes 5 seconds. The goal of a 5 second test is useful for evaluating any content pages for your website or product. First click test are useful if the team does not have the time or resource for running full scale usability studies, in this technique the primary idea is to give the user some tasks to perform and ask them what is the first thing they would click first in order to complete that task. This will give an idea as to how the navigation of the product is working and how users approach their task.

Comprehension test is a quick test that you can use to know whether the user is understanding the content or information presented in your product. Task cataloging questionnaire gives an idea on what tasks are most important to users, a quick survey and questionnaire can provide those insights. Catalog based tests also provide lots of information based of what content and what information is most important to users when they are interacting with the product.