User research is paramount to the success of an organization’s digital products. Building products without having done the background and foundation research about user needs, goals, and challenges, is akin to building a house without a blueprint. Research helps inform design decisions and gives decision makers confidence that their products will work for users.
While many user experience (UX) issues can be identified by an expert design review, or a heuristic analysis, often deeper issues with a system’s workflow, content, usability, and other factors are uncovered by involving real users.
Basics: what is user research?
User research is a process of understanding your users through a variety of activities that help to inform the design of a solution that matches user goals and needs. User research helps to support the design and development of systems that are successful — systems that are intuitive, usable, and even delightful. Research activities are always informed by research questions — what do we want to learn and why?
Here are a few examples of user research activities:
One-on-one interviews with actual users (or new users) of a product where we discover qualitative information, high-level themes and direct user insights
Tests the current products (or redesigned ones) against a set of common tasks with typical users. Each task is measured for success or failure; helps to uncover usability issues and possible user frustrations.
An activity that asks real users to group items together in categories; helps to inform a site or app’s information architecture (navigation, taxonomies, labeling).
Benefits of user research
Arin Bhowmick, the VP of design at IBM, describes user research as “help[ing] us to understand how people go about performing tasks and achieving goals that are important to them. It gives us context and perspective and puts us in a position to respond with useful, simplified, and productive design solutions.” Research not only helps set up a project redesign for success, it may even save money in the long term. Investing the time to conduct user research can saves hours of development time on potential features that aren’t needed, or save countless hours refactoring code for a product that isn’t working for users. Having the research insights help to ensure we are building products that will work for users.
How would user research help your organization?
Firstly, user research allows you to set a benchmark for your current product offerings. Research helps answer questions like “How well is the current site or app supporting users’ needs and goals?” User research not only helps understand the current status of your organization’s products, but can help uncover new site or app offerings and features that may greatly support your existing users or new users.
Next steps: How to begin user research
Any research is better than no research. Here are just a few easy things to start your user research journey and which could be used to kick-off a new project.
- Benchmark usability testing — involves recruiting a set of users to do usability testing of a website, app, or service. This will be helpful to identify how well any products are currently performing against a set of common tasks.
- Stakeholder interviews — part of design research, stakeholder interviews are held with key people from the project team or organization. These help to identify any business requirements or insights from the organization that are helpful when approaching the redesign. They also help to minimize 11th hour changes by upper management. Engage them in the process early.
- User interviews — these help to learn about user attitudes, behaviors, and usage patterns relating to behavioral and attitudinal factors. Learning customer insights directly from the source will help you identify new features or areas of your product to refine. Once you begin a design phase, you may rely on additional research activities like card sorting, concept testing or further usability testing.