"You're not your user"

"User first"

"Make this application user friendly"

In an ideal world we'd have a direct link to the collective of our user's thoughts, behaviors and emotions, but when it comes to a user's experience, the project's success or failure can depend on how well you did your research.

There's not a recipe for understanding users - people are complex. If you think about content inventories as the core to understanding data and Information Architecture, understanding users is the heart of Usability. The following article will walk you through the high-level components of design and user research.

Plan your Study

Before starting a research study, ground yourself in any available project information (e.g., Previous Research, Business Requirements, Contract Deliverables). How does User Experience fit in? Are their specific areas where the stakeholders need you to focus? Having a plan helps eliminate noise, and allows your research to focus.

Elements of a Research Plan:

Research Methods

User research is a blend of art and science, but you'll find no shortage of tools and methods to help you stock your Moleskin full of notes. Try to approach studying users from multiple angles. Are results from interviews meshing with the usage patterns you discovered while reviewing data analytics? You may be able to resolve a research gap by trying a different technique, but you may also find that you're trying to answer the wrong question.

Tools & Methods:

  • Data analytics: Can give you a starting point and high-level overview of how users are interacting with your system.
  • Survey: Useful in determining demographics and general motivations of users, and can be used to study remote users.
  • Field research: Great insight into the real motivations and desires of users.
  • Interviews: Along the same lines as field research, but more controlled and guided.
  • Shadowing: Watching users behind the scenes.
  • Focus group: Useful for seeing collective thought around an idea.
  • Usability testing: Best tool for validating a design or prototype.

Observing Users

Observing users is one of the most insightful techniques for understanding how people interact with their environment, what their pain points are and what motivates them. Studying abandonment statistics from a usage log is no substitute to watching a user make a purchase from a different website, because they couldn't find what they were looking for on yours.

Field Research Techniques

  • Shadow Users: Try to be a fly on the wall and observe.
  • Work Environment: Look around their desk – are they using sticky notes or paper to do their job?
  • Diary Study: Allow the user to take notes on their own during a normal day / week.
  • Record: Take notes, pictures and video - anything to help with analysis. But don't bury your head in the notebook – stay connected.

Keep in Mind

  • Users can't accurately predict their behavior.
  • Don't ask users how they would improve a system.
  • Ask users how they have used a system in the past, or what they enjoyed or didn't enjoy about an experience.
  • Use active listening when interviewing.
  • Ask questions.

Analyzing your Research

So now what do you do with that big stack of research notes, pictures and video? In the back of your mind you probably already have an idea and understanding of what you've studied. The research analysis phase is about taking that knowledge and making it actionable - finding the common threads, motivations and behaviors among your users. Are there overlaps that allow you to group similarities (e.g., Differences between demographics and usage)? Focus your efforts and recommendations to the original intent of the study - the how and why of doing your research in the first place.


Research Deliverables

  • Don't inundate stakeholders with findings. Try to be clear and concise with your observations and recommendations.
  • Personas: A powerful tool for keeping stakeholders in tune with the users.
  • Mental Models: What is the user's thought process as it relates to the world around them? Indi Young does a great job exploring this concept (see http://rosenfeldmedia.com/books/mental-models/ andhttp://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/what-is-your-mental).
  • Gaps: What's missing between your product's experience and what the user needs?