User research allows us to improve our websites, intranets, products, and services. Sometimes I work with clients who are new to user research and 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 for us. If you’re thinking about tackling a project with research in it, here are a few things to be prepared for.

First, 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 a better product/service/website for them. To do user research, you need to decide what techniques will be the best to learn more and help you with your design.

Three Stages of User Research

We can break user research to three simple phases: Before, During, and After.


A lot of stuff happens before you talk to users! Before you meet with your users, you need to decide what to you want to learn, how you’re going to ask it, how you’re going to measure it, and how you’re going to find users to talk to.

There are many ways to collect information and do research; research goals can help you decide on the techniques to use to capture information. Here are a couple examples from my past work:

  • A company had an existing website that they wanted to redesign, but first they wanted to benchmark if users could accomplish major tasks on that existing site. This company was also really focused on having statistically valid research findings. Since they wanted statistically valid results on a current site, we opted for benchmark usability testing with at least 20 participants all doing the same tasks. For these tasks, we created clearly defined success metrics so we could rate how well the current site performed.
  • A government organization had an old Intranet site that needed to improve. They knew some of the information was good and some of it was useless, but they were interested not in looking at the current site, but looking towards the future. They wanted a higher level Intranet strategy. In order to identify problems with the Intranet and the tools employees were looking for, we set the goal of understanding the information needed through the day for each worker and how they accessed the information. In this instance we did user interviews and job shadowing. As it turned out, the Intranet was one of two major tools used on-the-job, but employees only expected certain types of information to be on the intranet.

Depending on your goals, there are many research techniques you can use. No matter the research techniques you use, you should always expect to communicate directly with your users. Sometimes I run into projects where stakeholders want to stand in for the user, but 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 has to use the thing (or, for employees, suffer the consequences of decisions made by their managers). The only way to get first-hand knowledge is to research with the right people.

Finally, you’ll need to somehow recruit people to talk to. You can do this through your network, through staff, through Craigslist, or through a recruitment agency. The more of the recruiting you take on yourself, the more time it will take you. The more you outsource, the more money you’ll have to pay!


The exact details of what goes on during the user research depend on the techniques you choose to apply, but here are some things you can generally expect:

  • Unless you’re on a project where employees are your users, expect to pay a stipend to users from the general public.
  • Depending on the range of the research, expect to talk to at least 5 people, and expect to talk to at least 5 people per major user group.
  • Expect to do a dry run of your research plan or test plan to work out the kinks.
  • Expect at least one participant not to show up. Recruit one or two extras.
  • Plan to somehow record your research sessions. It doesn’t have to be high tech, but recordings are a great backup!
  • Expect to have fun and learn and be worn out at the end of the day.
  • Have one facilitator (someone who can focus on the interview or test) and one note taker (someone who can take notes on what’s being said) (depending on your chosen techniques).
  • Invite people that you work with to observe so they can see first-hand what users are saying or how they’re trying to navigate through your product/website.


You’ve finished a lot of user research, now what do you do with it all? Again, it depends on your research techniques, the number of users you had, and whom you need to share your research results with. Here are a couple of examples from some of my projects:

  • Written up in this case study, this user testing for a government organization required analysis in a spreadsheet, a thorough Word document, an executive summary, and a presentation. It was a lot of documentation!
  • On a project where I interviewed with 5 people, we simply wrote up the anonymous results and pulled out recurring themes or problems in a presentation.
  • On a project where I did online task testing with Treejack, the client needed a formal presentation not just for their core website redesign team but for their stakeholders at large. The presentation needed to review what task testing is, the findings from the specific test, and the recommended changes.
  • On another project where I did online task testing with Treejack, I worked with a team that required NO formal reports! I simply handed over a Word document with a few screen captures and a list of changes made based on the findings.

Depending on how many people need to know about your research, you’ll need to create documentation to explain the research and outcome. Some teams don’t want to be bogged down by documentation, but I think it’s a great way to advertise the effectiveness of user research and preserve findings for the long term.

Something more…

Not ready for it to end? You can learn more about 9 Actionable Steps to Improve Your Website’s Usability.