UX breakdown: User research

IterateUX

If you have an idea for a new product or service, you need to do user research. Maybe you jot down notes like a two-person toilet, or it’s time to make that Transformers dream come true. The first question you should ask is: do people want what I’m offering? That question is just the start of a larger and crucial part of the UX process: user research. In this series, we’re going to break down each phase of the UX process in more detail.

What is a user research and why is it important?

User research is the process of understanding your users — who they are, their behaviors, their values, the list goes on. User research is a central tenet to Human-Centred Design, and abandoning this step will likely hurt your chances of success in the marketplace.

Let’s look at an example from none other than Silicon Valley. Enter Juicero, a company that raised more than $100 million from investors to build a high-powered juice squeezer (yes, really). The company’s product had a price tag of $700 and required a wifi connection and a subscription to proprietary juice packets.

Photo: Juicero

Here’s the thing: A 2017 Bloomberg report stated that using your own hands to squeeze the juice packs were just as effective as its pricey counterpart.

In short, the company working on the “future of juice” is no longer in business. If Juicero had spent any time on user research — talking to customers and understanding their frustrations when making juice — they may still be operating. But they didn’t, and they didn’t solve any real problem.

Unfortunately, the neglect of user research is common. But let’s be clear: user research and design are different. The former’s goal is to collect, analyze, and synthesize data into insights. These insights inform design. Too many designers jump right to the solution, but research will help you frame the problem appropriately. Ultimately, the research aims to create a strong foundation upon which the solution can be built.

The best approach

There is no standard process for user research. Instead, context is key. There are many variables to consider, like what type of research you’re doing (qualitative vs. quantitative), which research methods you’re using (user interviews, analytics, A/B testing, etc.), and even the stage of the product life cycle. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole, and we’ll dive deeper into these topics in the future. Just remember to be flexible.

One thing is certain, researchers need to be clear on what they want to find out, and a great place to start is to build a research plan.

Diagram of how to plan your research plan based on Problem Statements

Think of user research as a science experiment. Researchers have a hypothesis, and they go about finding evidence to support their argument. You should also determine if the research is qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative research will help uncover the “why” question. Quantitative research will answer the “what” question. Researchers will apply different methods accordingly.

For Juicero, their hypothesis was something like: people are unhappy with the current juice-making process. Juicero went ahead and built a product no one wanted, but they should have dug deeper.

On the qualitative side, they could have investigated the juice-making process and highlighted people’s frustrations. They could have explored how juice plays a role in someone’s life. They could have even asked what compelled people to make their own juice instead of buying from the store.

For quantitative data, they could have looked at how many people use a juicer and their frequency of use. Demographic data, like annual income, might have indicated that a $700 price tag and subscription-based business model would not have resonated with users.

I just came up with these questions on the spot. To be an effective user researcher, you just need to have a healthy dose of curiosity.

And that’s research at the beginning of the project. There’s a misconception that user research exists in a vacuum. In reality, user research is an integral activity at every step of the UX process. As the product life cycle continues, you need to do the research to make sure you and your team are on the right track. Each new development changes the research question, and therefore, the methods. Understanding what users want and measuring your product’s usability are very different activities.

Remember, you are not the user. Doing user research correctly can ensure your product is informed by insightful data, thereby minimizing cognitive bias. That way, you’re not heating up the human body using microwaves.

We touched on a lot of topics in this article, and we promise to dive deeper in the future. In the meantime, start drafting research plans for everyday problems you encounter. Ask how you could improve your favourite coffee mug. Or better yet, you could investigate the juice-making process!

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