The 5 W’s of Doing Great User Research

The 5 W’s of Doing Great User Research

Sarah Doody explains in her guest post, which questions you have to ask doing a user research. Why is a user research important? When should you do research?

It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m sitting in a room with eight stakeholders gathered around a giant conference table. Projected on the wall are a bunch of screens that I’ve been designing. I’ve just finished talking through the screens and user-flows and now I’m waiting for some feedback and helpful conversation with the team.

It was silent for a few seconds and then came the words “I don’t like it … and neither would all my neighborhood mom friends.” Following that was a very long explanation (to me) as to why no one would ever use this product and why it was apparently useless.

One big problem … the person who gave this feedback was not the intended audience. However, she couldn’t grasp onto one of the most important rules in product development: You are not the user.

You see, most of the time, you are not the user of the product you’re working on. But far too often, founders and people working on product let their own opinions, desires, and beliefs influence product features. The result is a product that doesn’t solve a user problem or offers too many features and is hard to figure out.

How can you avoid this trap? How do ensure what you’re building is what people want? How do you ground your team in a firm understanding of the real users and not be guided by unverified assumptions and beliefs?

You do user research. You set aside time to get to know the people you imagine will use your product. You develop a deep understanding of their pain points and then you create solutions to solve those problems.

The problem is that a lot of teams do not do enough research. For many teams, it’s the first thing that gets cut or skipped -- mainly because it’s perceived to be time consuming and expensive. But neither are true. Research is flexible. The best research is shaped for the context of the product it’s being applied to.

To help you and your team understand the basics of user research, here’s a breakdown of the basics to help you see the purpose and process.

WHY Is Research So Important?

There’s nothing worse than launching a product and then having no one show up to the party. And for a team, it’s such a let down when you pour all your energy into something and then no one comes to check it out. Research is critical because it makes sure you build the right product. In his book Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love, Marty Cagan writes, “It doesn’t matter how great your team is if they’re not given something worthwhile to build.” Many smart teams have created products that never gained traction. Just look at Google’s Google Wave. I don’t know if they did research for this product, but I’m guessing that if they had done more research, they would have built a different or more simple product. Don’t let this be your team. Don’t start to design and build until you have talked to your potential users and customers.

WHEN Should We Do Research?

Here’s the big mistake with research. A lot of teams thing think research is something that should be done at the beginning of the product development process. But that’s not enough. Research should be an ongoing activity. You should be researching and testing at the beginning, while you design and build, and after you launch. It’s important to do this so that you are continuously checking in with users to see if what you’re making is matching up to their needs. You want to be constantly validating your assumptions. This makes it easier to course correct rather than waiting to test or research something until after you launch.

WHO Should We Be Talking To?

You know that saying garbage in, garbage out? Well the same applies to research. If you’re going to do a series of one on one interviews, it’s going to be very time consuming for you. Let me tell you, there’s nothing worse than sitting down for an hour long interview and realizing within 5 minutes that the research participant isn’t going to be very helpful. So what can you do to make sure you talk to the most useful people possible? You must invest time in recruiting the right people. The best way to do this is to identify the types of people you want to talk to as well as the people you don’t want to talk to. From these lists, you can create a screener of specific questions that will help you narrow down the right participants (learn more how to recruit participants in my user research course). So where do you find these people? If you don’t use a professional recruiting agency, don’t worry. If you were researching for a fitness product, you could try to recruit people from various fitness groups on Facebook, reach out to local fitness studios and gyms, post on Craigslist, or rely on friends and family. But don’t rely exclusively on friends and family because they’re too nice and probably won’t give you an honest enough perspective.

WHAT Type of Research Should You Do

Research can take on many forms. There’s a perception that research has to happen in a stuffy room with two way mirrors and bad chinese food. Not true. My preferred way to research is to talk to people one on one and watch them. It’s one thing to ask people about what they do. It’s another thing to watch how people do the things they do. Ethnographic research involves talking to people at their home or office -- a place where they are comfortable and where they can use their own computer or device. It helps you get a true sense of their day to day and the way they actually do things when you’re not there. Surveys are decent too, but the downfall is that you don’t get a chance to ask good follow up questions and understand the context of their answers. If you want to research a product that’s already in market, you should consider integrating micro-feedback into the experience so that the feedback has the best context possible.

WHERE Should You Not Conduct User Research

Have you heard of the coffee shop test? If not, here’s how it works. You get your laptop (or print out designs) and head down to the closest coffee shop. Then you stand there and awkwardly approach patrons asking them if you can have 15 minutes of their time to ask them questions about your product in exchange for a coffee shop gift card. So many companies do this and I wholeheartedly disagree with this approach. The flaw with this approach is that the people you are talking to have not been properly screened. You have no idea if the have any of the qualities of your intended customer, unless your product has to do with coffee. Approaching people blindly at coffee shops will certainly generate a lot of feedback to take back to your team or boss. But the quality of that feedback will be lacking because it will lack the context that would come from talking to an actual potential customer or user. This is why it is so important to plan your research projects and take time to accurately recruit the right participants.

HOW Do You Do a Great User Interview?

As mentioned earlier, ethnographic research is my preferred research method. Talking to people one on one gives you a chance to build rapport and spend time really understanding not just what but more important the why. This helps uncover people’s needs, behaviors, and wants and gives you insights that help you shape your product. I generally spend 45 - 60 minutes interviewing someone. Don’t worry, it goes faster than you think. How do you know what to talk about? Well, before doing any interview I create a discussion guide (get my free guide with 35 questions for a user interview). I break the interview into a few sections. First I focus on the person’s day to day and general lifestyle. Next I start to talk about the subject at hand (eg. fitness, shopping, finance) and start to understand how they approach different tasks and goals. Finally sometimes, I will have the person try and complete certain tasks on a website or prototype. And if you really want to get into the details of how to plan and conduct interviews then sign up for my user research course.

Is Your Team Doing Enough Research?

Does your team end up in meetings where you’re debating features? Do your design reviews have a lot of language including “I think”, “I want”, “Everyone knows that”? If you want to design a product that really solves a problem and that people remember, then you need to design it using feedback and insights from research. Designing with research helps you and your team save a ton of time and money because it helps you stay laser focused on what people actually need. Research helps you identify the big problems people have, and then by anchoring your team around those problems, you ensure that you only design solutions that solve those problems.

If you want to learn more about doing research, you can get my free PDF with over 35 user research questions that you could use in a research interview.

Want to go deeper and understand exactly how to do research -- including recruiting users, making a screener, creating a discussion guide, conducting interviews, and synthesizing your findings? Then check out my course on user research, The 5-Step User Research Formula.

Sarah Doody is a NYC-based independent UX Designer, writer, and speaker. Sarah helps product teams create the first version of their product, and companies already in market optimize their experiences. She is available for work worldwide. Sarah publishes a popular UX newsletter, The UX Notebook and can be reached on Twitter @sarahdoody.

Sarah Doody
Sarah Doody
Author of the newsletter "UX Notebook"