The Beginner’s Guide to User Research


A few weeks ago, we published an article on How to Succeed at UX Design. One of the core principles we presented in that article was a user-oriented approach to the design process. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the best way to do this: Through user research.

What is User Research

User research is the process of understanding the needs, behaviors, motivations, emotions, challenges, and contexts of your users. You might think that you know what they need and want, but that’s a dangerous assumption to make. You are not your users. Their life, their beliefs, their experiences look different from yours, especially if you have a bigger audience in mind (and we hope you do, #thinkbig). Conducting user research is the only way forward if you want to build something that’s data-based and user-relevant.

Here are a few key benefits of conducting user research:

  1. Relevancy: By gaining insight into the worlds of your users, you’ll be better equipped to create something that’s relevant for and desired by them. If you don’t know how their lives look, what habits they have, and what problems they’re struggling with you’ll have a hard time actually solving their problems. User research allows you to make informed decisions about your project.
  2. Credibility: Because you have gathered data and have actual numbers to share, you’ll have an easier time convincing stakeholders and team members of your project and, later on, of your design solution. If you only have assumptions, your arguments are going to be weak.
  3. Getting to the bottom: Sometimes a problem isn’t what it seems and has a deeper, underlying reason. The relevancy of your product is going to be a lot higher if it solves an underlying problem instead of a surface problem. Only through asking questions and understanding the life of your users will you get to the bottom of their problems.

Principles of User Research

When conducing user research, there are a few principles that are helpful to follow:

  1. Empathy: Distance yourself from your own opinions and assumptions, and see the world from the standpoint of your users. Empathy does not mean just placing yourself in the shoes of your user and then imagining what they might feel. Instead, it means conversing with them while acknowledging their experiences and opinions.
  2. Goal-oriented: Set a goal for your research outcome. What do you want to achieve with your user research? Sure, gain a better understanding of your users, but in what fields and in connection with what? What’s your exact aim for your interviews and your research? You’ll probably have to conduct several rounds of user research as you progress with your project development, so revise your research goal with each new round of research.
  3. Curiosity: Don’t get too attached to your idea or early designs. Be curious about your users, be curious about their answers, be curious about design variants, and be curious about the reasons behind your design choices.

User Research Methods

There are several methods to conduct user research. Here is a list of the more commons ones and how best to utilize them.

  1. Interviews: Prepare open-ended, specific and practical questions and be prepared to ask follow-up questions. Control your reactions throughout the interview. You should aim for a neutral response at all times in order not to influence the answers of your users. The more you can shut up and listen, the better. Record your interview for later analysis.
  2. Surveys: Prepare open-ended questions. Reach out to as many users as possible. In contrast to interviews, there’s literally no limit on how many people can answer your questions, and through the nature of the survey, you’ll also immediately have a recording of the answers.
  3. Personas: Describe your users in great detail on the basis of your interviews and surveys. Having observed and talked to them will allow you to create stereotypes of different user groups which may help you in your further design process.
  4. A/B Testing: Once you’ve designed a few prototypes, you can use A/B testing to check which one resonates more with your users. There might be big differences between the two prototypes or smaller ones such as typography, colors, texts, etc. Again, follow the principle of: shut up and listen. The less you influence your audience, the more honest your data will be.
  5. Usability testing: This method is also for testing a prototype and is meant to give you insight into the user experience of interacting with your product. How many errors do they make, how intuitively do they interact with it, and how do they feel about the overall experience? Also here shut up and listen applies.

User Research is a great tool to crawl into the head of your users and probably the best strategy for success. Nevertheless, users might not always answer as honestly as you hope. You might not ask the best questions. And your interpretations of your data might be colored by your own biases and assumptions (expect this!). Keep all those pitfalls in mind during your user research process, and don’t be afraid to change direction along the way, as you learn more about your users. Remember, #daretolearn, Pirate!

Further Reading

If you want to dive deeper into this topic and its methods, here is a pretty exhaustive list of further reading materials and practical resources. You can also watch our webinarrr on Product Design Strategy by Tobias Micko-Kramer, in which he goes through the whole process from idea to shipment and through how to use user research and data to get the best results.

Enjoyed reading this article? Ever invited a pirate for a coffee? Now’s your chance.

Tagged as design, entrepreneurship, innovation, research, ui, user research, ux

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