Updated: Dec 16, 2019
User research is a crucial part of Human Centred Design. It helps you to identify customer needs & problems, which help to define the correct user requirements.
There are lots of techniques available, each with their own pros and cons, which are suited to different needs.
This piece is an overview of what is out there, what to consider and where and when you apply them.
Your first task however is to identify what questions you are trying to answer. For example:
Who are your users?
What are their behaviours, goals, motivations, pain points, barriers and needs?
What assumptions have you made about them and are they correct?
How do they currently use your product and in what context?
What key things do they use your product for?
What don’t they use your product for and why?
What other products do they use?
Where do they have problems with their workflow?
What issues do they have with your product?
Then apply the best technique(s) to answer those questions.
Usually in the form of meetings, 1:1 interviews can be extremely useful in obtaining lots of relevant data, so long as the questions are asked in the correct manner. Interviews are also good at being able to probe responses for more detail.
As well as knowing what questions to ask and how to articulate them, being a good listener also helps. You need to be aware that people say may not be wholly representative of what they do.
Rich data source
Can be organic - interviewer can adapt with follow-up questions
Good for determining attitude & emotion
Analysis can take a long time, especially for qualitative data
Can be leading if handled incorrectly
What users say and do may not be the same thing…
When to use 1:1 Interviews
Verifying user requirements or product goals, and to gather detailed information on a specific topic.
Focus groups, when run correctly, can yield lots of information and opinions relatively quickly. By having multiple people involved, it can help to bounce ideas and refresh memories to move the discussion along at a pace.
However, they do come with risk. Certain personality traits can be very influential and it requires skill to manage the situation successfully.
Brings people with common need and/or problem together in one place
Can provide clear direction
Faster than 1:1 sessions
Discussion can trigger new thoughts and ideas
Group can be dominated by 1 or more individuals
Opinions can be influenced by others, introducing bias
What people say and do may not be the same thing…
When to use Focus Groups
Verifying user requirements or product goals, and to gather detailed information on a specific topic. Understand how users may engage with your product. Gather thoughts on a new idea to see if it resonates with more people.
Card Sorting & Tree Testing
Typically carried out 1:1, though can be done in groups too, card sorting (open or closed) is the organisation and categorisation to information, to provide order and structure to match users expectations.
Tree testing is typically used alongside card sorting. Users follow an already established structure to clarify what path they expect to use to complete a given task.
Simple, quick & inexpensive
Don’t need huge numbers, and 10-12 typically gives good results
Provides insights into how users organise information
Informs information architecture / layout
Analysis can be time-consuming
Results can lack consistency
Card sort is not task-driven, can lack context
May not be deep enough
When to use Card Sorting and Tree Testing
Developing an information architecture, commonly used in web design for menu labelling and hierarchy.
Diary studies are great at collecting data over a longer term period. They provide rich information on what users get up to and how they interact with your product.
They can be as detailed as you prescribe and can also include other stimulus such as photos in addition to the standard written detail.
A good tip is to select engaged people, as they are more likely to remain committed to keep writing their diaries.
Responses more ‘in the moment’
Sampling over longer duration
More time for detailed, well-considered responses
Reliant on accuracy/detail of self-report
More opportunity for inconsistent responses
Recruitment can be difficult
Can have high drop-off rates
When to use Diary Studies
Following up to a prior piece of research such as interviews to gather more detailed and contextual information.
Controlled User Observation
Normally taking place in lab conditions, controlled user observation can yield both qualitative and quantitative data. Sit, watch and record users in action with very little input.
Users are given direction on why the research is taking place, which sets the expectation but may impact on natural behaviour.
Easy to reproduce
Goal based, contextual responses
Quantitative & rich, qualitative data
Quick to conduct
Reveals usability issues
Can use eye tracker to measure what attracts / doesn’t attract attention
Controlled environment can make recruitment more difficult
Hawthorne effect - Being observed can impact natural behaviour
When to use Controlled User Observation
Observing someone perform their tasks or interact with a product, but need to do that in specific conditions, to test with specific variables or in specific conditions.
Natural User Observation
In comparison, observation with this technique takes place in situ and is much more relaxed and unstructured. As a result, it tends to be more reliable.
However, it is less repeatable for the same reasons since variables such as weather and lighting are not within our control.
More realistic than controlled study
Can reveal unanticipated, context-specific use cases and issues
Especially useful with follow up interview session
Can apply more contextual enquiries into discussion
More expensive and time consuming
Lack of experimental control makes analysis more complex
When to use Natural User Observation
Observe someone perform their tasks or interact with a product, when you need to see them using it in anger in their own environment.
Behaviour Tracking (Analytics)
There are many tools now that track people’s behaviour when using a website i.e. Google Analytics.
They can inform you how people act think and make decisions. And once it’s set up, it’s all done for you!
Your data is only as good as what you ask for though and there is no opportunity to ask the person themselves.