User Research in Plain English

It’s a little know fact that when Da Vinci said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” he was talking about user experience design. To build a great digital experience, you need to deeply understand your end users. This is done usually at the very beginning of a project and we call this process user research.

Traditionally, user research has been conducted by UX designers, and talked about with complex language. Terms like “task based analysis” or “contextual inquiry” are thrown around in a way that I think puts off many people. These off-putting terms essentially are simple, proven ways for performing user research as part of a design project. And despite the complex lingo, these methods all boil down to one tried and true belief: to build a great experience you’ve got to truly understand your end users.

Understanding your users or customers means knowing them in multiple dimension. First there is the dimension of depth. Who are these customers? What are their needs and pain points, wants and expectations, and relationship with technology or your products? The second dimension of understanding your customers comes from realizing that you don’t just serve one type of person. Rather, there are probably many different groups you’re creating an experience for.

At the most basic level, let’s call these groups “novice, intermediate, and expert.” Which implies there are some users/customers who will be a little involved or enthusiastic with your product. While others are hardcore evangelists or spend a lot of time with your product.

So how do you get to a point of understanding both dimensions of your users?

Well, first let’s acklowedge that the information gained from that deep understanding has to be applied to a design process. That is, you should never just perform user research for the sake of it. Plan for your user research findings to really challenge assumptions you’ve made about your customers, your product, and to inform each and every decision you make going forward. User research can sometimes be so powerful as to even fundamentally call into questions basic assumptions about your business.

Now that we’re on the same page of what user research is, let’s talk specifically about some different methods and ways you can get moving without the need of UX designer:

Method 1: Have a Conversation with Your Users (Non–directed Interviews)
The term “non–directed interviews” simply means listening to what your users say. You’ll need to put together a set of interview questions which are un-biased, and cover a variety of ground, from the user’s age and basic demographics to how they think/feel about the world of your product. For example, if you’re creating a digital travel tool, you’ll want to ask some casual travelers (novices as well as frequent travelers (experts). Ask them questions like “How do you feel about planning for a trip?” and “Take me through the steps you normally go through when getting ready to travel.” Be sure to focus more on listening to their answers then talking in response, and ask open-ended, nonjudgmental questions.

Method 2: Be an Anthropologist and Observe Your Users (Contextual Inquiry)
In plain english, “contextual inquiry” means observing what your users do as they interact with a product, or go about their day. They key here is that as the observer, you’re not interacting with the user, interviewing them, or implying a bias of any kind. You’re the fly on the wall, just there to act as an anthropologist and record the behaviors and reactions of your customer in “their natural habitat.”

Method 3: Ask Your Users to Achieve a Goal (Task Analysis)
Task analysis is a fancy term for observing how people take part in an activity or process. It can be a physical, real-world task or a purely digital one. Observe and record what users think and do as they complete each task, step by step.

Often times, you might want to encourage the observed users to think aloud, voicing their inner dialogue. While this might be initially unnatural for them, it helps uncover the pain points and decisions they’re making. That then becomes incredibly valuable input into the design process. If you can identify a clear problem your target users share, you’re moving towards offering them a solution.

Method 4: Create a Story About the Using the Product (Story Boards & Use Cases)
We’re not writing the next great American novel here. Rather, we’re putting down in words a real-world, believable narrative about a user and their interactions with your product, or just their daily life and activities (“a day in the life” story can be invaluable to establish a common vision within your team). Storyboards or user journeys can describe a series of events or steps in an activity or a process (similar to task analysis). They are a great reference when thinking of how to craft an ideal experience from start to finish, that plays an ongoing role in your customers’ lives.