In this article we will look at the steps to take to conduct UX research, focusing particularly on usability studies.
NOTE: This article was inspired by a conversation I had with Jenny Gove, a UX researcher at Google, for our YouTube series “Designer vs. Developer”. You can also listen to a longer version of the conversation by downloading or subscribing to our podcast on iTunes or Google Play Music.
To start with, I have to state that you should always have professional researchers on hand to do research properly, in the same way, you need a trained designer or engineer. That said, if you are starting out, or want to improve your process and site or app, diving into research is the best thing you can do to improve the work that you do.
When you run research during product development, what you are looking for are the problems people have with your product, what works for them and what doesn’t. So, if you’ve never done this before, a good starting point is asking people who are available to you, to use your product while you observe them. Over time you should recruit users that are more representative of your product or service.
Foundational research may involve using market research, existing user research (secondary research), and can involve field visits and observational work to enable you to build a picture of the experience people have and the challenges they face. So if you want to understand how people charge their phones because you want to build a new wireless charger, you could go and observe people in their homes, and see how they currently charge their devices, understand their routines and what their struggles are.
Often users hack their own experiences to get something to work in a way that suits them. Hacked experiences are a crucial signal of a problem they have, for example, passwords for shared accounts are difficult to remember as they are seldom used. So users write them down on a sticky note and stick that to their monitor, thus rendering the usefulness of a password meaningless and surfacing a UX issue that can be solved. The learning phase helps us understand the challenges the users face so we can start to solve their complexities.
Iteration phase & usability studies
To start with, you need to get your designs in front of people and watching how they use them. First thing is the setup, you will need a space where your users will feel comfortable. You will also need two researchers, one taking notes and the other speaking with the user. This is so that the “moderator” can build a rapport with the user, and it helps if someone is taking notes so you can have a free-flowing conversation. For this kind of study, you only need 5 to 8 people. You can test with more, but you will have surfaced the majority of the largest issues. This is fine, as the goal is to understand the problems and successes of the design, not test with a thousand users to quantify the benefits of color changes.
To begin with, you won’t be speaking much, except to sometimes probe for deeper understanding, and to clarify responses. Primarily you’re asking the user to attempt a set of tasks. For example, if your product is a note taking app, you would set up a realistic scenario for the user, and the tasks you could ask the user to complete could include, “Take a note”, “Save a note”, “delete a note” etc. You will ask the user to complete each task and “think aloud” as they run through each one. Think aloud is a technique where people verbalize what they are doing, and what they are having issues with, what they see first, etc. Then one by one ask them to complete each task and observe what they did well and what they struggled with. It’s key to your role that you avoid instructing the user on how the product functions, and instead primarily observe the experiences they have, and uncover the reasons why they are trying certain actions, or thinking in the way that they do.
After the user has completed all the tasks, you can open the study to a free-flowing conversation, where you can ask them about the things they liked and disliked, and dig deeper as to why. If they struggled with a specific task, this is an opportunity to find out more.
Once your product or service is launched — you’re not done with user research. There are always ways to improve, and as contexts and competition changes your users will experience your product differently over time. Having set your metrics for success before developing your product, you now get to measure them on a regular basis.
You might track satisfaction, perceptions of use, or how features and functions are used, and appropriate methods can be employed, such as surveys, usability studies, and diary studies (documenting use and experience over time). You might couple this data with logs data for greater evidence of issues. If you make changes to your product, like redesigning features, you will incorporate iterative usability studies again; but the motivation to do so might be through benchmarks or logs data, and you can use qualitative studies that bring insights into how improvements can be made.
In summary, user research is about understanding the users’ experience of your product and surfacing insights that can lead to opportunities for product improvement. To truly empathize with those we are designing for, we need to think about designing inclusively. Make sure that your studies include diversity in the participants, and be inclusive of gender, race, age, and physical constraints. Experiences and needs can differ, and it’s difficult to appreciate this if your participant pool is narrow.
The goal of any study is to understand where problems or friction lies and get the design and development team to understand the context and the reasoning of the people who are trying to use the product or service. With that feeling of empathy, UX research can empower the team with insights and motivation to improve people’s lives.
Special thanks to Jenny Gove who provided crucial edits and suggestions to make sure this article was accurate.
You can learn more about UX design at Web Fundamentals.