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The Hitchhikers guide to user research

User research is the path to creating products and services that align with users' needs, behaviors, and emotions. In this article I want to give an overview of the much overlooked but systematic approach to UX research that is typically taught in academics. You can consider this a hitchhikers guide to user research.

Our journey begins with formulating a clear and focused research question to build your research thesis around. Similar to the start of Arthur Dent's adventure, it begins with a simple question, "What is happening to Earth?" Your research question will serve as the foundation for your investigation, ensuring a targeted approach.

Try to discover what you want to know, don't focus on the how yet! A well-crafted research question focuses your efforts and ensures that your journey yields meaningful insights. It can be explorative, just follow a simple curiosity. It is, however, good to explain to yourself what you want to know to align with your team, client or your own complicated thoughts.

An example of a research question is: How do product managers experience the onboarding process of our in-app workspaces? - Research questions can be as wild as you want. It is exactly the point. It invites participants to share their unique perspectives, allowing researchers to delve into the nuances of user experiences without imposing predetermined outcomes. This fosters a deeper understanding of users' needs, motivations, and pain points, uncovering insights that quantitative metrics alone may overlook.

Qualitative research thrives in this explorative space, offering rich narratives and insights that go far beyond numbers. Compared to quantitative analysis, qualitative analysis requires less of a fixed outcome to bring reliable outcome. Instead, it can function as an exploratory tool to find insights that might otherwise be overlooked.

That is where rich qualitative data outcomes outcompete quantitative research that focuses on metrics. The results can help make decisions in product development, design processes, and strategic initiatives. By leveraging qualitative as a tool for discovery, designers can shine a light on any unknown subject. It takes away any presumptions with real sources to back it up.

Prepping your research - Understand what you're dealing with

Start by reading into your topic to gain am understanding of the subject matter. Go about and talk to your client or team mates. Read a book. Scroll the internet until you're tired. Try to get a grip on the subject at hand. This will help you form your own informed opinion and develop a clear hypothesis. It will also help you to not be a complete noob when talking to your target group.

You'll find that there are gaps in your way of reasoning. You won't understand the whole subject. Find gaps in your line of reasoning, find ways it fails.

Right now your goal should be to find those missing pieces and resharpen your research question. You might end up with a whole set of subjects. That is the perfect start for a conversation. And one last thing: Write it all out. Documentation of your thought process is key to understanding the research later on.

In the case of the onboarding example. You might find questions like: Do product managers need separate onboarding? What steps do they usually take differently from their team members? Do they even want to be included in the research or just want the outcome?

With these questions you can easily start with crafting discussion guides for interviews or surveys. It is a good idea to structure the new set of questions logical themes. These themes will make large scale research way easier.

Discussion guides act as roadmaps, steering conversations towards valuable insights. Treat it as such. It is a guide, not a script. There is not preset conversation paths. Yes, some conversations might go sideways but there is always a conversation to be had. The best results lie in the unexpected.

Follow-ups are the questions that you might want to ask if you had all the time in the world. You won't, unfortunately. Be sure to make a distinction between the main questions and follow-ups for leftover time.

Incorporating nudges, small questions to ask the interviewee to give more explanation to an answer can help to explore specific topics without leading them towards predetermined conclusions. Write these out! They are your friend during high pressure interviews.

The priority of questioning is also essential; starting with broader, open-ended inquiries before delving into more specific areas allows for a natural flow of conversation. It will also to bring everything into frame in the synthesis of your data gathering.

Nielsen Norman Group has a great example of a discussion guide online. You can see how they support their main line of questioning with nudges to keep the conversation going.

NNGroup discussion guide with main question, follow-ups and nudges The main questions, follow-ups and nudges in a discussion guide (NN Group)

The example also shows the thought put into the structure of the interview, asking simple questions to warm the conversation up. The first question does not really matter for the research, it is a way to get the interview going and make the interviewee feel safe.

Some people make great researchers, some don't

People who do interviews need great people skills. I've had difficult conversations myself, where people had to relive past trauma in order to answer questions. It is not for everyone to have those conversations. It is a hard thing to do right.

Empathy plays a vital role here. Understanding the participants' perspectives and emotions is a must for any researcher. It is not only meant to have a better conversation, but also to help the user a sense of importance as to why you're doing the interview. In the end, interviews will leave people to feel acknowledged if you're doing it right.

Bring your own perspective - research is subjective

Yes, research is based in facts. But also is not, if you think about it. In qualitative data we bring individual experiences to the forefront. Everyone has their own experience, and synthesis is used as a tool to understand those. We try to understand the complexities of our own emotions, experiences and contexts of use. It is only after understanding those that we can improve our understanding on a product or service. That means that our own perspectives are just as important in our work as our users. There is a frame of thought that all research needs to be exclusively rooted in the place where data is gathered. Meanwhile we are steering our interviews, and subconsciously bringing our own perspective into the mix.

Personally I see this as a strength compared to more rigorous research. With our own experience we can compare our thesis with others, and might disprove prejudiced ideas. We might also confirm them. It is in the interplay between these perspectives that we find the truly unique research outcomes.

Feminist researcher Reinharz (1992) emphasized the importance of acknowledging the researcher's perspective in demonstrating the validity of qualitative research. Reflexivity, or the researcher's self-awareness of their influence on the research, is crucial.

This can be done through simple tools as note taking. Writing down your own thoughts during interview rounds. The nuggets lie in the analysis of these notes, the evolution of your perspective and bringing others through that same line of thinking.

You can see how your own perspectives have now shifted. You have become a different version of your earlier self. This is why research can form an endless loop. You will never have the full same experience as your most precious assets - your users.

Tools that might help you

Here are some things to make this process a lot easier. Clients often expect user interviews to be transcribed. You can use various tooling for that but my favorite so far has been BlueDot. Another great way of doing things is recording (Gamebar in Windows) to rewatch. During the rewatching you can make notes in a whiteboard (we'll come as to why whiteboards are superior) like Leapfrog, Miro or Mural. If you have a teammate, you can do it live. Do always ask consent in ink!

Bringing everything together

Quotes ordered by participant in a collaborative environment by Matt-Cooper Wright Quotes ordered by participant in a collaborative environment by Matt-Cooper Wright

If you have everything on a collaborative board it might look something like above. You'll have a board with notes of things you heard, the nuggets if you will. There is not structure, no grip on what this actually says yet.

During synthesis we'll start making sense of the fuzzy part of research. What are we looking at, why did people say certain things and how can we use that in our design process?

There are many ways to answer these questions, but little that tie back to the original source. The method that we are using here is the grounded theory method, which ensures that original data, in the form of quotes will never use its link with the insight.

Having these markers in your synthesis will help you to take responsibility to your clients. You can now back up any design decision with a participant. This is what sets out good designers from bad designers. The ability to explain your decisions with user-backed remarks is invaluable.

Put your quotes/notes in a collaborative board to access with your team Put your quotes/notes in a collaborative board to access with your team

We have a board filled with data, but how to make sense of it all. If you do large scale user research you'll see that your post its may go into the thousands. The way to relieve the confusions is to put related data together into clusters.

Clustering helps to see perspectives that participants gave you during the interviews. Although it is a necessary step in context mapping, affinity mapping and classical grounded theory method, it is also one of the most manual time consuming steps.

Cluster emerging from quotes Clusters emerging from quotes

With these clusters you can start to make sense of why people said what they said. In the example they clearly have problems seeing what their team is doing. Above really gives us two insights:

  • Onboarding can be clearer - Product managers fail to recognize where their team is working
  • Privacy is a concern - There is a need to give more explanation to the user

Taking out these kinds of insights in the point of the whole process. They are backed up by participant, sentiment and give a right background to the claims.

Reporting your findings - How to communicate an outcome

Your research is only as valuable as your ability to convey its insights in a clear, compelling, and actionable manner. Your report should tell a story that guides stakeholders through your research journey. Use a logical structure to present your findings, starting with the most significant insights and then diving into the details. Make sure your narrative is coherent and easy to follow, connecting the dots between your research question, methodology, findings, and recommendations.

Reporting your findings - How to communicate an outcome This report uses a great layout for research presentation, be sure to put quotes in there! Templates here

Each presentation slide should be made up of at least:

  • Participant Quotes: Use anonymized direct quotes to illustrate key points and provide a human element to your report. A lot of designers seem to forget these! I find this the most important part of any slide.
  • Key Insights: Clearly identify the most important findings from your research. Your own interpretation can be shown here. You may find that your clients have a different one, it is good to iron out these differences.
  • Actionable Recommendations: Provide specific, data-backed suggestions for improvement or change based on your insights.

Be sure to anonymously present everything to be compliant.

Consider an interactive presentation where stakeholders can ask questions and discuss the implications of your research. This not only makes the presentation more engaging but also provides an opportunity for immediate feedback and deeper understanding. Half of the work is already done before the presentation

Although any stakeholder/client/boss likes to have reporting done on the work you're doing, I personally find that you can better take them along in your research. Regularly update them with your findings, line of thinking, and leave the fuzzy notes out of sight until you're certain that you've seen everything. A good mentality to have it to see every stakeholder as a team member. Share regularly and collaborate on issues you face.

And really that's it! To summarize: User research is about talking to people, good user research follows method. Be sure to find your own method, your own twist that fits your preferred way of working. You'll find that you'll develop a unique style that gives you a competitive edge. And if you're lost - that is part of it all! Just as Arthur Dent needed his trusty guide to navigate the galaxy, you can use this guide to navigate the complex world of UX research. Happy exploring, and don't forget your towel!


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