Why you need to research your users and how to do it

Research is inevitable in UX design and is a big part of the design process. In this blog post, I’ll be focusing on user interviews and user testing and resolving the challenges involved in these processes.

Knowing how to pick the right research technique from your toolbox to uncover the information you need should be a critical skill for any designer.

But when your toolbox is somewhat empty, it can be hard to know where to begin. So here are some areas to focus on, which should help you understand the 4 most important steps of user research and help you on your way to becoming a better designer.

1. Find the right method


Researching users can be done through several methods ranging from quantitative surveys to qualitative user interviews. Based on where you are within the product development circle, you need to apply different methods like surveying, a/b testing or card sorting. I strongly believe user interviews are the backbone of every design research. It’s something you most certainly cannot afford to leave out of your toolkit.

2. Build smoother ways to access users


Without access to your users, you simply cannot do a great job when it comes to user research and user testing. You need your users because in order to produce a winning design, you need to base your decisions on real data instead of just assumptions. Hypotheses and guesstimates may have worked in the past when you were just starting out, but they aren’t going to cut it if you want to become a great designer.

But finding a constant flow of users can sometimes be challenging. If reaching your users is something that can be done easily, be grateful and make the most of it! But if you’re still struggling, these tips might help:

  • Get stakeholder buy-in: If your organisation doesn’t fully recognise the value of design, this might pose a challenge. It’s worth remembering that when it comes to UX design, everyone will have an opinion; which makes almost everyone a stakeholder. This puts you in a great position to emphasise the value of gathering more opinions and making sure everyone understands the importance of this. Design is a key value for businesses and has to be taken seriously.
    From my experience, buy-ins are one of the most time and energy consuming processes. You need to  exercise patience and repeat yourself until everyone is on the same page. In the end, user research is a team sport and you need cooperation from teammates to help gather all the data you need.
  • Build up channels: Usually there are several channels you can develop in order to gather feedback. A simple e-mail to customers is often effective, as are surveys. You can even enlist the support and sales teams to help recruit users for you. You just need to make sure you follow up on these connections. From my experience, users love to tell you about their problems and ideas for a product they use often—all you need to do is to open these channels and listen.
  • Research and test regularly: Having a routine for your research process lets you practice your interviewing skills and constantly improve yourself. It’s also a great idea to build a pool of users you can approach anytime and not just once in a blue moon. User perspectives change over time and often quite rapidly too. Hence, user research isn’t something we do once and then forget about. For it to be truly effective, it needs to be a continuous process, which means you should never stop talking to your users.
  • Talk to the right users: It’s a good idea to mix up the type of interviewees you’re talking to, to get a range of perspectives! Try to talk to both technical and non-technical users, and also beginners, intermediate and advanced users. In most cases, you will want to focus your design on intermediate users—this is going to be the largest group of users of your application.
Access users anytime, anywhere
When your product is in early stage and doesn’t have users yet, or is merely a prototype without real users, it can be challenging to find people to test with. To resolve this problem, we built PingPong which connects you with people around the world who are willing to spend time using your application and providing their opinion.

3. Know what you want & how to ask users for it

user research

There is a “right” way to do user interviews. It’s an entirely logical process which gets you the right answers. In order to get the information you need, there are certain rules you need to follow:

  • Avoid a fixed set of questions: It’s a conversation, not an exam. You’re not trying to test the person, you’re trying to learn as much as you can about them. Learning how to hold a conversation and build empathy with the user at the same time is not easy. There are a lot of good examples on this in the IDEO book: Creative Confidence, which talks about design thinking.
  • Don’t ask people what they want: There is a huge amount of literature that explains why this is a bad idea. In short: people can’t tell you what they want. But, they can tell you what they are trying to achieve OR what their goals are. And that’s perfectly enough for you to design solutions for their problems.
  • Don’t make the user the designer: Avoid asking the user to draw screens or feature layouts for you. If he or she suggests a modification to the design, gently ask what the reason for this modification is and what problem it would solve. This allows you to understand your user more deeply and figure out the best design for their needs.
  • Encourage storytelling: Once you manage to encourage the user to talk about their past experiences, challenges and how they overcame it, you can get a much better insight into the problems faced by your users. Storytelling also allows the users to talk about their feelings—which gives you a deeper understanding of their needs. The more details the user can provide, the more information you will have—leading you to make better design decisions.
  • Avoid leading questions: All of us have hypotheses and assumptions. These should be left far behind. You need to make sure you’re not being too suggestive with your questions as this could lead to inaccurate results. For example, avoid asking ‘How difficult was is to navigate using app X?’. Try asking open-ended questions instead like ‘What were your thoughts on navigating using app X?’. This way, you’ll avoid cornering the user into responding a certain way.
  • Don’t go into details: User interviews should be about the user and their goals. Going into details about the UI might sound like a good idea at first, but chances are it’ll just lead to endless conversation. It can also turn the user into a designer and give them less time to clue you in on their thoughts. Exactly the opposite of what you want! Whenever you find yourself getting too deep into irrelevant details, take a step back and focus on getting your user to answer the question at hand.
Participatory Design:
While I say pretty strictly don’t ask people what they want and don’t make the user a designer, there is a technique called participatory design. It involves sitting down with the user and designing the interface together with him or her. The underlying goal of participatory design is to understand the user in a much deeper way. From experience, this can be useful when you’re working in areas which require specific knowledge like chemistry or aeronautics which cannot be easily learned by the designer.

4. Learn how to evaluate the information gathered


It’s shocking how many bad designs come to life even when huge amounts of research have been put into the design process. Don’t forget that design is a team process—so to make the best decisions, you should pull in your teammates too.

Always conduct the research and process the data as a team or have a pairing session to tackle it. Each designer’s process and viewpoint can often vary. One designer could end up forming an entirely different conclusion and come up with different solutions as opposed to another designer, even when they’re both are looking at the same data. But if you are working within a team or pairing with another designer, it’s easier to make the best decisions cohesively. I strongly encourage you to invite other stakeholders, developers or product owners to the table when evaluating data. It’s in their best interests too to understand their users properly!

To get the most value from your data, I’d also suggest looking for the following when you’re analysing interviews and research data:

  • Look for patterns: when people start to talk about the same things, that’s a clear indication that something is up. It’s worth investigating, at least.
  • Avoid listening to very opinionated ideas: there are times where users will share very opinionated views. Avoid paying too much attention when this happens. However,  extremely opinionated users can sometimes be important too, as they could be  communicating things that other users are too scared or timid to say. The general rule of thumb here is to prioritise trends and patterns before considering highly opinionated and emotional feedback.
  • Make design decision you can push through: technical feasibility is pretty important when it comes to making design decisions. It’s good to have a software engineer at the table who can advise you. Ideally, you might even have some of these skills yourself. This is also the reason you may want to bring  people with varied backgrounds to the table to help understand your research as perspectives are important. You also need to consider if the decision you are about to make can be pushed through the company or if you need to find a “lighter” version which will see less opposition.
  • Share the learnings with stakeholders: the learnings of user research must be shared with the stakeholders. This allows you to justify your buy-in process and it could also help get you another round of buy-in for your next user research.
  • Build personas that you can use later: Personas helps you to summarise the learnings and gives you a quick overview of your archetype users. Developing personas can be really useful to build empathy towards your users and create the right product for them.

Now that you’ve learned a few basic ideas about user research, you should be able to identify the most important parts of interviewing users and begin conducting your user research. If you want to learn and improve even further, here are a couple of books worth checking out:

Remember, the more you talk to your users, the more insight you will gain. It’s also important to keep in mind that user research is not a one-off process. Understanding and researching your users should be a continuous process. While the methods may change as your move forward in accordance with the product development circle, it certainly never ends.