Whether you’re writing content, building a website to attract customers, or developing an app, it’s important to know who your users are, what motivates them, and how they interact with various pieces of your digital presence. Often product owners think they know the answer to these questions, but their own perspective, experiences, and biases influence those answers. Of course, some of these guesses will turn out to be correct, and your site or app might resonate with users even without the research. But research helps you make informed decisions and test assumptions based on your users’ own words and actions.
User research takes time, and there aren’t any shortcuts. For today, we want to help take the overwhelm out of user research by demystifying it a bit. At its core, user research is simply interacting with your customers or users, asking lots of open-ended questions, and carefully listening to their answers.
As Kedron likes to say, “Empathy isn’t imagining how you would feel in someone else’s shoes. It’s imagining how they feel in their shoes.”
How to conduct user research
There are easily more than a dozen different methods for conducting user research, each with specific use cases and goals.
Today we’re going to look at four popular user research methods and when you might use each of them:
Before we dive into the specifics, though, it’s important to remember that user research is only as good as the goals you set ahead of time. You need to know what questions you’re asking and how the research will influence your next steps.
For example, if you’re conducting interviews, your goal might be to understand who your users are, what their daily activities look like, and how your app can address various pain points they experience in their work. If you’re doing user sessions, your goal may be to see how users interact with a specific feature of the app and if it’s intuitive even without step-by-step instructions.
You don’t want to go into the research expecting specific outcomes—it’s important to be open to following the research where it leads—but you do need to set goals and ask specific questions in order to maximize the benefit of the research!
It’s probably safe to assume we’re all familiar with surveys and questionnaires. A survey is a set of questions—whether closed- or open-ended—you send to a representative group of users in order to get their feedback.
Surveys scratch the surface of user research, allowing you to get a lot of responses to predefined questions very quickly. Because the questions (and sometimes the possible answers) are predefined, though, they can be prone to bias, which makes them less precise and more subjective than other research methods.
- Easy and inexpensive to conduct.
- Makes it possible to survey a large number of people quickly.
- Offers the chance to either a) ask very precise questions with a limited set of responses or b) very open-ended questions that will help determine future research questions.
- Researchers can’t ask follow-up or clarifying questions within the survey.
- Prone to bias, both in the asking of the questions and the interpretation of the answers.
- The scope of the survey is determined beforehand and is not easily adjusted.
When to use surveys
- As an introductory research method to quickly understand your users and how they interact with your organization: How did you first hear about us? What other organizations did you consider? Have you referred others to us?
- To get feedback on specific features of your website or app: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your experience using XYZ? If you could make one change to XYZ, what would it be? How often do you use XYZ?
- To hear your users describe their experience in their own words: What is your biggest hurdle when it comes to XYZ? How does XYZ make you feel?
While surveys are limited in scope, interviews provide the opportunity to go much more in-depth. A user interview isn’t just a casual conversation; it’s a structured interview that requires planning to be most effective. However, open-ended questions allow interviewees to tell stories based on their actual experiences, and follow-up or clarifying questions encourage interviewees to share additional details.
There is still an opportunity for bias in this process, particularly in the types of questions you ask. Be careful not to use leading questions or to clarify the interviewees answers by presenting your own opinions. For example, instead of “Why do you love this app?” you might ask: “Which app do you use the most often? What do you like about it?” You also want to ask about specific situations rather than hypotheticals: “Thinking back to the last time you purchased a new app, can you walk me through what led you to that app and how you made the decision to purchase it?”
- Lets researchers hear users’ experiences in detail, in their own words.
- Helps you understand users’ thoughts, perceptions, and feelings in specific situations.
- Allows you to follow the thread of the conversation to dig deeper and discover insights you might not have thought to ask about initially.
- Requires a larger investment of time than many other research methods.
- Because of the time and commitment (for both parties), interviews limit your research to a smaller group than other methods.
- Takes practice to get good at asking non-leading questions and encouraging interviewees to expand their answers.
When to use interviews
- To create user personas and complete your empathy map: Tell me what your typical day looks like. How do you currently go about XYZ?
- To hear how users feel about a process or product: What do you like about XYZ? What don’t you like about XYZ?
- To hear from users about the behavior you observed during another research method: When you first visited the site, what stood out to you? What made you click on XYZ?
Card sorting is a very specific type of user research that asks users to organize information in a way that makes sense to them. This research influences the way you structure menus, workflows, and information on your website or app.
The process is just what it sounds like—users are given cards (whether physical, i.e. an index card or post-it note, or digital through an online tool) and asked to group them in a way that makes sense. In an open sort, users are then asked to name each of the groups they’ve created; in a closed sort, they’re given a predetermined set of groups to sort all of the cards into.
- Provides a simple and inexpensive way to answer a very specific question (i.e. how to organize content).
- Works well in conjunction with other research methods.
- Allows you to understand your users’ mental models for information rather than organizing information according to your own perspective.
- Does not always result in easily identifiable patterns or conclusions.
- Physical sorts require manual analysis or entry into a software program for analysis.
- Only provides a limited amount of insight.
When to use card sorts
- At the beginning of a redesign or refresh.
- When adding new content to a website or app.
Usability testing involves observing users while they interact with your website or app in order to identify—and address—areas that cause confusion or create problems. This can be done throughout the design and development process.
While usability testing usually involves providing research participants with a list of tasks to complete and then recording their behavior, tools such as Crazy Egg allow you to observe regular users in the wild to identify potential sticking points that may need additional tweaking or testing.
- Allows you to observe users to see how easy or difficult it is for them to complete specific tasks.
- Provides a way to test the usability of a site throughout production in order to refine and improve it.
- Offers a way to test competing ideas against one another.
- Doesn’t always reflect real-life scenarios (i.e. using the app under pressure, surrounded by chaos, etc.).
- Costs can add up through several rounds of usability testing.
When to use user session recordings
- At the beginning of the design process to get an idea for the usability of your prototype.
- Before embarking on an update or refresh to see where improvements can be made.
- When you think your website or app is ready to identify any obstacles for users.
You can, of course, use a combination of research methods to get an unbiased picture of someone’s behavior or expectations (i.e. a usability session or card sort) followed by clarifying questions (i.e. a survey or interview). Whichever user research method(s) you choose, it’s important to start with a clear idea of what you hope to learn and how you will use that research to inform your next steps.
We’d love to help you develop a plan to conduct user research and synthesize the results into your strategy. Contact us today for an initial evaluation!
With 10 years of experience as a professional blogger—and as a former Agathon hosting client herself—Mandi’s passionate about the good work Agathon does and sharing that message with more people.