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Understanding the User

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User Research

Fundamentally, every product or design is intended for a user: to address challenges, to make tasks easier, to improve their lives. The first step in creating effective designs is to understand people. Well-executed user research helps designers see past assumptions, find creative solutions, and develop products that people actually need.

Generative User Research

Generative user research, also known as exploratory, discovery, or foundational research, occurs during the earlier stages of product development and focuses on discovering the motivations and pain points experienced by users. Generative user research can include interviews, surveys, diary studies, and field studies. These types of user research work best during the early stages of product development, when you’re trying to get to know your user base.

Evaluative User Research

Evaluative user research, such as user testing, evaluates or assesses an existing design or prototype so the design team can improve and iterate.

Choosing a Research Topic

Choosing a topic for user research involves deciding on a focused research goal, research questions to help achieve that goal, and research methods to help answer those research question(s). When you’re starting the product development process, consider the problem space and the scope of the problem you’re trying to address.

Quantitative Research Methods

Quantitative research methods are those that collect numerically measurable data. These methods allow UX professionals to discover broad patterns, compare different designs and their trade-offs, and tie their work back to company goals and key performance indicators (KPIs). These methods include surveys, card sorting, and web analytics.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative

Quantitative research generally provides high level data about a larger number of participants, while qualitative research generally provides richer data about a smaller number of participants.

Qualitative Research Methods

Qualitative research methods examine why users behave the way they do in depth, and focus on the motivations and thought processes behind a user’s experience, in order to build empathy, explain why users are behaving a particular way, and provide illustrative anecdotes. These methods include interviews, focus groups, diary studies, and field studies.

Mixed Methods Research

Good user research works with a mixture of research methods to get at both the bigger picture and the details. Researchers should consider combining qualitative methods with quantitative methods, and attitudinal methods with behavioral methods, for a full understanding of user behavior.

Attitudinal Research Methods

Attitudinal research methods focus on self-reported thoughts, beliefs, and needs from users, or what users say, rather than what they do. These methods include interviews, focus groups, diary studies, and surveys.

Behavioral Research Methods

Behavioral research methods observe user behavior, or what users do, rather than what they say. These methods include field studies, web analytics, user testing, and tree testing.

Triangulation of Methods and Analysis

Mixing research methods doesn’t just apply to collecting your research data, but also how you might analyze it. Triangulation refers to the use of multiple sources of data or multiple approaches to analyzing data.

Writing a Research Plan

Once you’ve chosen the methods you want to use for your user research, you can begin preparing and executing your research. The first step in initiating a user research project is always to write a research plan. A research plan should include background, the research goal and questions, research method(s) and protocols, any ethical considerations, and a timeline and due dates.

Recruiting Research Participants

Who would you ideally like to talk to or include in your research and where will you look for them? Research recruitment involves deciding who you want to research, how you will find them, and how participants will be compensated. In many cases, a short survey or participant screener is used to qualify participants.

Considering Diversity and Inclusion

Considering diversity and inclusion early in the research process, during recruitment, will lead to more inclusive designs and products down the line. Consider various users who may use the product and how they can be involved in the process. In some cases, it may be best to empower communities or groups to solve their own problems, rather than designing on their behalf.

Accessible Design

Accessibility refers to designing devices, products, and environments such that individuals with disabilities or sensory impairments can successfully use them. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) break down accessibility into four main principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

Inclusive Design

Inclusive design is a discipline of design that emphasizes designing products and services that work for people of all demographics, perspectives, and abilities, with a focus on those who may have been historically marginalized or excluded.

Universal Design

Universal design focuses on creating one experience that can include as many people as possible. The principles of universal design consider how designs can be useful to people of diverse abilities, or adapt flexibly to users of different preferences and abilities.

Sharing Your Research

In UX design and research roles, part of your responsibility is to advocate for the user and share research findings across your organization. A research report is used to share research findings and tell the story behind the research. Multiple formats should be considered to make research more memorable: for example, a presentation, written report, summary email, or even video can be used to advocate for user needs.

User Interviews

User interviews are a UX research method where a researcher conducts interviews with individual participants.

Illustration consisting of three panels, each showing a researcher conducting an interview with a different participant.

Why Are User Interviews Conducted?

User interviews are conducted to better understand a user’s thoughts and feelings towards a specific topic of interest defined by the research goal.

Types of User Interviews

There are three types of user interviews: unstructured, semi-structured, and structured.

Diagram showing the unstructured, semi-structured, and structured labels on a line spectrum. Underneath the label 'Unstructured', there is an illustration of a researcher and a participant talking over a cup of coffee. Underneath the label 'Structured', there is an illustration of a researcher and a participant talking in a formal interview setting.

Unstructured Interview

Unstructured interviews are guided by open-ended questions, allowing the user’s responses to lead the interview. To prepare for an unstructured interview, researchers outline research goals and topics, rather than specific interview questions.

Semi-structured Interview

Semi-structured interviews have a general plan or outline that is created prior to the interview to lead the conversation towards a certain goal, but are adaptable to the user’s responses.

Structured Interview

Structured interviews have a clear agenda and outline that is defined prior to the interview. Each interview is guided by the same script to ensure control between users.

Materials to Prepare Interviews

Prior to a user interview, a recruiting screener should be prepared and sent to possible participants, a research plan should be developed, interview questions should be written, and a neutral and calm environment should be chosen.

Interview Questions

Interview questions should be non-leading and open.

A non-leading question is a question that does not hint at a certain desired answer. An open question is a question that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no”.

Response Bias

Response bias is the tendency to consciously or subconsciously provide inaccurate information due to the nature of a self-reporting method.

There are many different types of response bias, such as acquiescence bias, demand characteristic bias, social desirability bias, and interview bias.

Acquiescence Bias

Acquiescence bias is the tendency to agree with the interviewer.

Demand Characteristics Bias

Demand characteristics bias is a change in how a user answers questions due to the knowledge that they are part of a research study.

Social Desirability Bias

Social desirability bias is a tendency to provide answers that align with characteristics or viewpoints that the user views as socially desirable.

Interview Bias

Interview bias is a change in response due to a user’s perception of the interviewer. This may be due to a user’s own biased perception of an interviewer’s ethnicity, age, gender, or physical appearance—or even details like body language or facial expressions.

Uses of Qualitative Methods

Qualitative research methods are conducted to help researchers develop relevant themes, patterns, and stories from collected user data.

Coding

Not to be confused with computer programming, coding is a qualitative analysis tool in which segments of text are labeled using codes—to easily identify, compare, and sort these points of data.

Coding Data Process Illustration

Code

A code is a word or phrase that represents a segment of text, acting as a shorthand for the description of the information. Codes are used to compare different points of data more easily.

Affinity Mapping

Affinity mapping is a qualitative analysis method in which a researcher pulls important points from a data set and categorizes them visually, creating a map of the data.

Illustration depicting an affinity mapping process before and after.

Insight

An insight is a pattern of observations made by the researcher based on the data.

Recommendation

A recommendation describes how to solve or improve upon an observation a given insight describes.