Check out the Product Innovation Framework!

Four ways to win at user research

At the heart of any user experience design project is user research. It’s a great way to validate assumptions and learn about your customers before getting on with actually designing and developing anything.

Getting started with research can feel daunting, especially when there are many different forms it can take. The good news is that whilst conducting UX research is one of the most powerful sources of information, it’s also one that doesn’t require any highly specialised skills, unlike coding or design.

Learning to interview people is a skill that anyone can develop, and something most organisations can, with the right advice and guidance, undertake in-house.

We’ll discuss the pros and cons of four main methods here, as well as our feelings on each of them. It goes without saying that as the requirements of every product and business vary, so does the type of user interview that will serve them best.

Everyone likes to get their opinions heard. Don’t underestimate the loyalty you’ll also build with customers by including them in research exercises; it’s a bonus benefit to all of these techniques.

#1 Immersive

An in-depth exercise in which you follow around someone for a day (or several hours) to observe exactly what they do while asking questions along the way. In many ways, following a user around for the day and completely immersing yourself in their experience seems like the gold standard when it comes to finding out about them.

Benefits

You’ll see the minutiae of a user’s life, and the moments that people don’t even realise are important. In user interviews, most people will talk about major, memorable things that happen, not the little bits of non-verbal gold that you might observe doing this.

Directly seeing someone’s pains is going to give you an unparalleled insight into them, and ultimately no business gets worse for knowing a lot about their user.

Downsides

Sending a member of staff to live a user’s life is intense. It’s costly, time consuming and, dare we say it, possibly a bit weird (who wouldn’t be at least a little creeped out having a stranger following them?) if not done with a huge degree of sensitivity.

However skilled a researcher you are, there will always be a strong risk that users won’t act naturally with you in their environment. Even if they try not to, people behave differently when they know they’re being observed.

It’s a fine balance between observing, chatting and being a bit of a nuisance. Getting good at this requires practices and an innate instinct for what’s suitable for the person you’re currently shadowing.

Do we use it?

Full disclosure, this is actually something we rarely do. It’s costly, full-on, and can only target a small user group. For many of our clients the resource needed wouldn’t justify the value it would provide to them.

Most products we work on just don’t require this level of insight into a life. In order to build a successful SaaS product, for example, we wouldn’t ever need to actually be in someone’s home to gain enough knowledge.

Some products, however, absolutely do. For organisations such as charities, direct understanding and really learning about the service users whose lives they hope to improve is crucial. They often have dedicated research teams to make this level of activity more affordable.

#2 Focus groups

Getting a bunch of people in a room is one of the most traditional ways of conducting user research. It would probably be the one mentioned most often if you asked a person on the street to name a research method. (Which in itself would be a form of user research. 😂)

Benefit

Focus groups are a relatively low cost way to get access to a decent sized group of people in the flesh. You gain the non-verbal observation benefits of immersive research and get insights in a structured way all in one go. Being able to take a video of the session is a great way to help jog your memory when it comes to pulling out insights.

Having a group of people all in one place is a good way to start a conversation around the topic you’re discussing, something that’s almost impossible using the other techniques. You have total control over who you invite so you can make the audience as diverse (or non-diverse) as you want to see how opinions differ.

It’s also a great way to show visual assets for discussion and feedback. Focus groups are very popular with companies bringing new physical products to market.

Downsides

Getting people together is a logistical issue, as anyone with a friendship group that spans more than one area can tell you!

Meshing up diaries and finding a physical location for your group to take place can be a major headache. If you’re a big corporate organisation you may have a meeting room to use, but if you’re a startup, this is something else you’ll have to spend money on.

If your group is taking place during your normal working hours, how will you get a good mix of people who aren’t also busy doing their job?

Are you going to need people to take time off? You’ll probably need to compensate them with more than an Amazon gift card if so.

Probably the biggest issue with focus groups though is the nature of groups themselves. Managing the loud, the overbearing, the shy and the awkward in such a way that everyone can a) get their opinion heard and b) doesn’t go along with ‘group think.’ The person who shouts the loudest often leads the way.

If someone really wanted to slack, they could keep their head down and contribute little, and it can be challenging to encourage them to engage.

Do we use it?

Not really. For us, the group bias we’ve just talked about is really hard to overcome to the extent that the value justifies the effort.

With an old-school market research whizz running and guiding it though, and perhaps with something very physically tangible to look at and give an opinion on, this could be the method of choice.

#3 Over the phone

Phone or video-call based interviews are a more hands off method that allows you to speak to people without having to ever meet them in person. Most people have a phone on them for almost every waking hour of the day.

Product leadership podcast

How to conduct expert user research aka how you might be doing it wrong

Hear our top tips for conducting expert user interviews on the podcast 🎧

Benefits

A one-to-one chat with someone is a great way to have a detailed conversation around a topic. You can follow a script, but at the same time you’re able to explore avenues and react directly to replies and cues from them.

Phone calls are non-intrusive, and way easier to fit around people’s schedules than meeting in person, so users are more likely to commit to taking part. You may well find that a focused chat over the phone brings out more openness and honesty from users too, and they feel less put on the spot.

Findings can easily be recorded and several people can sit in without crowding into their front room. With WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom et al. you can reach users all over the world with minimal – if any – cost.

Downsides

If you’re on the phone and can’t see someone, there’s a chance of missing out on small details and non-verbal reactions. A user can say ‘it was great’ whilst wincing, for example, and you’d be none the wiser from their tone of voice.

You likely only have an hour max for these calls so fitting it all in can be tricky, especially if there’s lots to talk about. It’s quite easy for people to ramble so if you’re not in control of the conversation you might find you don’t get the insight you need before your time’s up.

Conducting interviews over the phone at large scale can be very time consuming. Remember that the more you do, the more you have to analyse. Formatting results can be a challenge – you really need to be on top of what you’re going to do with all this information in order to get value from it.

Last but not least, bear in mind that people can ignore your attempts to contact them this way more readily – missing a call isn’t a huge social faux pas in the same way not turning up to a face–to-face session would be.

Do we use it?

Absolutely we do, it’s our preferred method. We usually run phone and video calls as the very first phase of any research phase to reach out to customers and users directly.

We’ll usually book in a small set of people (5-10) to talk to first, discuss findings and then evaluate whether we need to do more. Often you’ll get enough from a number that small to see trends in conversations. Having a good hypothesis and structured conversation here will also help the process.

#4 Online surveys

You’ve no doubt filled in loads of surveys online and will no doubt also have been asked to fill in one in a pop-up on a website or two. Survey Monkey, Typeform, Google Forms – these are some of the biggest names in the game for running online surveys.

Benefits

If you need statistically significant findings, and to test your assumptions at scale, this is the way to go. An online survey will be structured, quantifiable, and produce data that takes a lot less effort to analyse than any other form.

Add to this the ability to hyper-target to demographics and behaviours, whilst allowing users to remain anonymous, and you can see why many people are tempted to do the bulk of their research this way.

From a cost perspective it’s a huge win. The amount you’ll pay per response will be drastically lower than all the other options here. You may well find you’re paying pennies per user.

Downsides

We can’t stress this enough – survey design is SO much harder than you’d think. We see a lot of surveys on a regular basis that won’t actually deliver any insight.

This can be due to length – it’s a fact of life that human attention spans aren’t long and a set of questions that takes 20 minutes to answer is never going to do well.

It can also be due to badly written or formatted questions. We often see survey questions where the answers available don’t allow for a level of nuance that is needed, making the question impossible to answer correctly. Allowing for shades of grey is something that takes a lot of thought and requires a good level of understanding of the end user.

Expressing personality through an online survey is tricky too, so striking up a rapport with users is practically impossible. You lose the human element using this technique, which can be a very important way to get unexpected insight from your users.

Do we use it?

We do, but usually as an extension or followup to phone calls. It’s a great way to back up your initial findings at scale and explore the detail that you’ve uncovered to see whether what you’ve found out is shared by a wider group.

A very effective use of surveys we’ve found is a super targeted one, for one specific aspect of the research done already. This is a great way to further test a topic that still has unknowns. Shorter surveys can often lead to better response rates and can also be easier to design.

Conclusion

The beauty of all of these options is that they all work in the right scenario. Doing some research is always better than doing none, but it’s down to you to choose which technique suits your user and what you’re trying to learn about them.

Above all, have fun with it. Research is one of the most exciting parts of a digital design project for us as we get to learn loads about groups of interesting people. You’ll hear some surprising things, you’ll make mistakes and you’ll have your plans shattered but it will all be of benefit to your project.