User research allows us to improve our information structures (such as metadata models, data models, websites, intranets) in ways that are helpful to the people using the structure. When we work with clients who are new to user research, they need to know what the process of user research is like and what to expect as an outcome.

Before we assume that user research will answer all our questions and fully illuminate a dark abyss, it’s important to set expectations for what user research can do. If you’re thinking about tackling a project with research in it, here are a few things to be prepared for.

What Is User Research?

A great source for basics and beyond, tells us:

User research focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies.

By learning more about your users, you can make or improve information structures to improve the user experience. To do user research, you need to decide what techniques will be the best to learn more and help you with your design.

Preparing for User Research with Research Plans

A lot of stuff happens before we talk to users! If we have a limited amount of budget, we will typically do one or two research activities and make plans for those activities. We can also make a user research plan for that includes multiple activities, how those activities complement each other, and the purpose of each activity.

A plan would include information such as:

  • What we want to learn
  • How we’re going to ask it
  • Who we’re going to ask and how many people we need to talk to
  • How we’re going to measure it
  • How we’re going to find users to talk to
  • Who will conduct the sessions

As a team, we review the plan and agree to it, before we start recruiting users and scheduling sessions.

There are many ways to collect information and do research; research goals can help you decide on the techniques to use to capture information.  At Key Pointe, we focus our research on user interviews, usability testing, benchmarking task testing, card sorting, and surveys. We use the appropriate method depending on what we want to know.

No matter the research techniques we use, we always expect to communicate directly with your users. Stakeholders can not stand in for the user. There’s a big difference between a stakeholder and a user: the stakeholder is the person who makes the decision or has second-hand knowledge. The user is the person who must use the thing. Sometimes these users have no choice – they’re told to use the thing as part of their work. We want to capture their work and their sentiments! The only way to get first-hand knowledge is to research with the right people.

Executing the User Research

The exact details of what goes on during the user research depends on the research plan. However, here are some things you can generally expect:

  • When working with the public, pay a stipend
  • If employees are your users, ensure they have time to participate
  • Talk to at least 5 people per major group of users
  • At least one participant will not to show up. Recruit one or two extras
  • To be worn out at the end of the day
  • Allow for one session facilitator and one note taker
  • Invite people that you work with to observe so they can see first-hand what users are saying

All of this will be part of your research plan, too!

Analyzing the User Research

Once we finish the user research, we have a lot of data. How do we process it all? At Key Pointe, we typically analyze and group the findings in a spreadsheet, create themes, and write the supporting evidence into a summary statement. We also conduct workshops with stakeholders to look at the problems and come up with opportunities to solve the problems.

After we do these workshops, we will write up the results in a way that works for your organization. It might be a document, a presentation, or an online whiteboard. Creating this final result is a way to preserve the findings and refer back to them in the future when you want to continue to improve the user experience. You can also share the findings with others so they can be “enlightened.”