How to Conduct User Research that is Actually Useful

(this article has been previously posted at Taiste’s blog, check it out!)

It seems that service design and user research are nowadays the basic tools of every design (and often even tech) agency. But how do you know what kind of user research is actually helpful and insightful for your project? I decided to shed some light on the often misunderstood, but crucially important area of digital service design.

Photo by Sticker Mule on Unsplash
Photo by Sticker Mule on Unsplash

Anyone who’s ever been involved with digital service business knows how crucial it is to listen to the users. Thus, user research is almost always present in application and service development in some form – and rightfully so. Obviously enough, great user research should always be based on business goals and strategies. What this means is that you should not simply be asking what the users think of the product, but rather have a set of assumptions and claims you want to test.

The best research questions are often ones whose goal is to find out whether the users really approach the service or certain parts of it a way you thought they would.

As a design anthropologist, I always try to approach the theme in question from a broad perspective, since it always brings up something new that none of my team – nor our client – has even thought of.

Also, by challenging your preconceptions about the audience, you are most likely to find UX problems and acquire valuable insight.

There are many schools of thought when it comes to user research. What it all often boils down to is that some methods are more useful than others depending on the context. Sometimes an online survey or few deep interviews will do the trick, sometimes you can ask users to keep a diary for a period of time, or install a screen tracking app to track that records every step of their user-experience at home and in the design lab.

However, when choosing the right method it usually comes down to two things: schedule and budget.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

Isn’t user research terribly expensive?

A common assumption is that user research requires a lot of time and money, but that is not entirely true. It all depends on how massive your research should be. In many cases, preliminary user research can be done rather quickly as a part of the design process. In some cases, the project has several broad questions that should be studied with the prospected users in order to save time and money later on with the actual nitty-gritty of creating the service.

The size of the research project depends on a number of things:

  • Are you testing a concept or an already existing service?
  • Is the research contributing to Minimum Viable Product or the final product?
  • How detailed information do you want to know about the user path?
  • Is there something in the app design that needs to be polished and re-designed in order to meet new business strategy goals?
  • Is your service used locally or globally?
  • Do you already know who are your users and, especially, why they are your users?

Answering these questions will help you determine what kind of user research best suits for your interests – and on how big scale it should be done.

So which method should I pick?

Again, depends on what you want to find out. Online surveys and statistical methods are usually the most cost-effective way to explore whether the users understand the purpose of the app, and are using it in the intended way. The data acquired from this kind of research consists mostly of quantitative information, which is also great when you’re interested in user demographics, for example.

 Design anthropology on the other hand usually digs a little deeper into the psyche of the audience and usually combines statistical information with qualitative interviews in order to produce more in-depth data about the people who use the service.

Statistical data has different advantages than qualitative, which is why it is often a smart move to combine the two. Using only statistics might leave you a bit puzzled with exactly why certain user tendencies take place, whereas placing your trust solely on qualitative interviews might lead you to false assumptions based on individual opinions, and so on.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash
Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Is the user always right?

Ha, I see what you did there. Very clever. The answer to this question is both yes and no. Let me elaborate: if you try to take into consideration every little detail or suggestion your users point out, you will most likely end up with an app so full of features and fancy stuff that it becomes a UX disaster. Your users are most likely not usability professionals, and thus their comment should not be approached as direct advice.

So how do you know when to make changes? That is for you and the design team to decide. Sometimes the users’ suggestions are indeed ideas worthy of implementing as such. But more often, they serve as windows to how the users experience the world. This information is absolutely vital and goes a long way when planning overall strategies and user profiles.

Good user research should never be simply about fulfilling the audience’s requirements.

Instead, the aim should be to also read between the lines to tap into the issues the users do not necessarily know how to properly express. Or more precisely, to be able to give them what they don’t even know they need just yet.

Any thoughts how would you approach user research in digital service design?

I would love to hear your stories!

Kudos for my colleague Tuomas for helping out with the draft of this blog post. ❤

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