Demystifying User Research

A blue background with black dots arranged in a grid. A blue rectangle sits on top of the black dot grid and the text says: Demystifying User Research: An Inside Look at Mediacurrent’s Process and How You Can Get Started, Too

User Research can seem inaccessible and overwhelming. With so many different methods to consider, tools to use and questions to ask and answer, it can be hard to figure out where you start. As a digital product agency, user research is a big part of our process of defining, designing and developing new interactive experiences. We’ve gathered a few of our tips, tricks and insights to help you kickstart user research for your own product.

Catch a replay of our webinar discussion on user research, including our best tips and tricks to get started.

Why Do We Do User Research?

Sometimes clients will say that they already know their audiences’ needs and they don’t need additional input. There is often an expectation that user research needs to be an elaborate, expansive and academic process that will take more time and cost more money than they have planned.

While research initiatives can be elaborate, expansive and academic, they don’t always need to be. Research for us is about gathering context, developing insight and getting feedback from the people who will ultimately use the product that we’re making. By interviewing just a few people, we can identify unmet needs that we wouldn’t have otherwise known about.

However, user research shouldn’t be done “just for the sake of it.” Before embarking on a research project, you need to identify your objectives. We answer these three questions before starting any research process:

  1. Why are you conducting research?
  2. What are you looking to uncover?
  3. What will you do with the research after it’s completed?

Once you have a good sense of the why for your research, it’s time to start thinking about the what and the how.

We start by drafting three to five hypotheses we have about our users, our product or the landscape we’re researching. We don’t have to validate all of these hypotheses for research to be successful. In fact, sometimes our research reveals that our hypotheses are not right and getting that information directly from users can be extremely valuable to the process and the end-product.

A hypothesis for user research should be centered on the user and the actions they currently take or will take with the product, for example:

  • Most users of the university library website access the site on their phones while they’re in the library
  • Company employees are able to find information about HR benefits on the intranet site without direct assistance from the HR team
  • The value of creating an account to use the product is clear and new users are able to register quickly

After you conduct your research, you can use your hypotheses as an easy frame to synthesize your outputs and tell a clear story about what you learned. You can create new hypotheses for each type or round of research you conduct or you can continue to test the same hypotheses with different methods.

What Methods of User Research Do We Do?

We are always expanding our research practice and trying new methods and platforms but there are few core tools in our toolbox that we use on virtually every project:

A blue background black dots arranged in a grid pattern. Three white boxes sit on top of the blue background. The first box says: User Interviews. The second box says: User Observation. The third box says: Prototype Testing.

Almost all of our projects start with user interviews where we connect with real users of a product or service and ask them about their experiences. These generally take the form of a one-on-one conversation of around 30–60 minutes.e use a pre-written set of questions to learn more about the problem we’re trying to solve with a new experience, what’s missing from a current experience or how a user generally expects to interact with the product we’re going to make.

User interviews are one of our favorite ways to kick off a project, but they don’t have to be done exclusively at the beginning. Connecting with users on an on-going basis is a great way to inform how to iteratively develop a product and directly respond to user needs. User interviews can be done entirely remotely or in-person. Having a remote option means we can connect with different types of users, including users who live in different countries.

Regardless of when and how you conduct user interviews, a good interview guide is a must. Here are our tips for creating a great interview guide:

  • Give context at the beginning, be clear about who you are, what you’re doing and how the information provided in the interview is going to be used.
  • Ask the participant some introductory questions about themselves so you can get to know them better as a real person.
  • Start with broad questions and then narrow the focus with follow-on questions (think: “Tell us about your experience with booking travel online…”).
  • It’s helpful to ask users to recall a prior experience (“Have you ever purchased movie tickets online? Walk us through the last time you did that.”).
  • Ask a mix of questions about the functional experience of using something (eg. “When you got to XYZ page, what were you hoping to accomplish?”) and emotional questions (eg. “When you used this feature in the past, how did it make you feel?”).
  • Try to avoid leading questions. Asking “What did you like about the product,” assumes that they liked it. Instead ask “What stood out to you about the product — good or bad?”

When it comes to the interview, don’t be afraid to go off script and ask “Why?” or “Can you tell me more about that?” If someone says something interesting and unexpected, follow that thread but be sure that you’re leading the conversation.

During the interview, be sure to take notes effectively. For the best research sessions you’ll want to have at least two people on the call: one as the facilitator of the interview and one as the notetaker. The notetaker should try to capture as much verbatim content from the user as possible and capture that in the notes. If you can’t have two people on the call, try to record the session and if you’re using a platform like Zoom or Google Meet you can use the transcript later for notes.

Our favorite note taking tool is a spreadsheet and we’ve made a template version that you can use in your research practice, too.

Another method that we use in our research practice is user observation, a method that can take a few different forms.

The first form is contextual observation and inquiry where we observe a user interacting with a product in context. This could be watching someone use an ordering kiosk at a fast-food restaurant or watching them search a university library website while inside the university library. Contextual observation is watching the user passively (but unobtrusively). The inquiry part is where we interact and ask questions.

Like user interviews, if we’re planning on doing contextual inquiry, we prepare an interview guide in advance so we have some consistency in the kinds of information we’re gathering from users.

Sometimes contextual observation isn’t the right format for a project, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do observations at all. Direct observation is another format that’s similar to a user interview, where a person uses a product while in direct observation by a researcher, talking aloud while they move through a process. We use direct observation particularly when we’re working on improvements to a content management system and/or a publishing workflow. Watching someone actually use a content management system and show you how they publish website content gives you a direct look into where the process and the product work and where they don’t.

The third method we use is unmoderated observation using a product like Hotjar or Microsoft Clarity. By adding a code snippet to a live site, we can watch session recordings or see heat maps generated by user actions and behaviors. Unmoderated observation tools are great for getting a lot of data in a relatively short amount of time but it’s important to contextualize the outputs that you get from any tool. You can use the data to shape the story of what you see happening on your site, but the data is not the whole story.

One of our favorite methods of user research is prototype testing — another method that can take many forms. A prototype doesn’t have to be complicated and it doesn’t have to be something that’s made exclusively by a product designer. You can get great feedback from a very basic drawing on a piece of paper and use that to shape what you ultimately build.

When we talk about prototypes, there are four key qualities that we think about and use when we’re deciding what the prototype should be like:

  1. Representation: What form will the prototype take? Will it be a simple paper prototype or an interactive experience made with Figma that is practically real?
  2. Precision: Will the prototype be low fidelity or high fidelity? A paper prototype can be high-fidelity, with different drawings or layers of paper depicting different states of the product. A Figma prototype can be low-fidelity, with gray boxes in place of images and default fonts.
  3. Interactivity: How will people interact with the prototype? Is every possible action interactive or are screens just linked together?
  4. Evolution: What stage of the design and development process does the prototype come in? Will you continue to evolve a prototype or go straight into development?

Answering these questions will help determine what kind of prototype to create and when it makes the most sense to test it. If you’re creating a brand new product, you might want to test very early with a simple prototype to validate that your concept makes sense to users. If you’re redesigning a website, you might want to create a high-fidelity visual design prototype so you can test with users familiar with the current site.

Prototype testing, especially with higher-fidelity prototypes, can be a great way to save money on a project because you can test and make adjustments quickly and easily in design. Once you have thoroughly tested your prototype with users, you’re less likely to run into issues once you’ve built the product and it’s harder to change. Think of prototype testing like insurance that you’re building the right thing.

Recruiting for user research is sometimes the most daunting part of the process, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Conducting user research doesn’t mean that you have to talk to 50 people or achieve any kind of statistical significance in your results. You can research and test with as few as five users and get extremely useful feedback.

When you’re looking for potential test users, it is important that you try to get a representative sample of people. If you test with five men around the same age, from the same area, who have the same academic and professional background, you likely won’t get representative results. Before we start recruiting for user research, we create a set of recruitment criteria that we do our best to meet.

These criteria can include demographics (eg. age, gender-identity, location, education level, household income) and any attributes that are specific to the project (eg. attended a specific school, has never used the product before, has used the product for years). Identifying these criteria also helps us determine how we can recruit the users that fit this profile.

When it comes to recruiting some methods we’ve used include:

  • Asking friends and family
  • Using a client’s email newsletter
  • Social media ads
  • User recruitment panels like User Interviews

Once you have identified a good pool of test users, ask them if they’d be willing to continue participating in research efforts with you so you can build a database of folks to reach out as new research opportunities arise.

The final step in the research process is synthesis. Take all of the inputs from your research (eg. interview and observation notes, prototype feedback, session recordings, etc.), identify any patterns or trends that you see and determine whether your initial hypotheses were validated.

You’ll likely have a lot of raw information from any of the research methods you’ve used and you shouldn’t simply drop that into a slide deck or document and call it a day. Regardless of the stage of the process or method of research you’ve used, the research inputs should be used to move your project forward.

Here are some thought starters to use when synthesizing your research:

  • What did we learn about our users that we didn’t know before?
  • How will this new information shape the experience we’re creating for them?
  • What changes will we make (or not make) based on the input we’ve received?

If you have a project that you’re looking for guidance on in the research process or any aspect of design and development, we’re here to lend a hand.

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