The problem with user research is knowing where to start

September 5, 2023
Jess Sherratt

Understanding user needs and pain points is a crucial part of gaining insights to do great work - no matter what industry you’re in.

But the world of user research can seem intimidating, complex, and sometimes unreliable. That’s why it’s important to understand why you’re doing research, set clear and achievable objectives, and know what good looks like.

Setting the scene

Understanding what you need to change and the desired outcome is the key to asking the right questions and choosing the best research methods. Research should always have a purpose and needs to be used to inform a wider piece. So, by starting at the end, planning, and asking, ‘What do I need to change?’ (i.e., a service, website, app) and ‘What do I need to make?’ (i.e., a process map or user profile) you’ll define the purpose of your research.

By doing this, you’ll also be able to identify the type of people you need to speak to, the questions you might need to ask them, and the methods needed to answer these questions.

Don’t forget to ask yourself what you want to learn, or you risk falling into the trap of wasting time and devaluing your research. To keep you focused, create a statement to guide your research:

We are researching… [What you want to change]

For…[The demographics of people you need to speak to]

So that…[The outcome you want to achieve from the change]

Because you now know what you need to do, you’ll be able to bring a team together to understand the research process. You’ll be aligned on the outcomes and keep your analysis focused to avoid ending up down a rabbit hole.

Asking valuable questions

Once you’ve put together your statement to give you focus, list out your research questions. Don’t worry too much about the wording of the questions; focus more on what the objective of the research is. Use your research statement to help draft questions, then break the questions down into methods, and work out what you need to do to find the answers.

Mixed methods approach

To help you plan your methods, keep insights lean and inform what you do next, think carefully about how you can answer the questions you’ve set. There are two mindsets of research which can be combined to create a holistic research programme.

"Mixing your methods is all about managing risk."

An explorative mindset is used to go wide and uncover as many things as possible, whereas a validation mindset helps you to go deep and ensure what you’ve found can be verified. Utilising a mixed methods approach helps you to feel confident with your research. Many researchers make the mistake of only speaking to users in one way and end up with research that isn’t as valuable. However, it’s important to balance this with keeping it lean - consider the time you have, so you can work out which methods are a priority. Mixing your methods is all about managing risk, so you can understand the problems in depth, but use scale to validate the size of the issues to enable you to make decisions on where best to invest in solutions.

When deciding how to research, you should think about extreme users. If you can talk to people in extremes, you’ll be able to show the full picture of the user experience. So, find people who thought your product or service worked well, then find those who had a complaint. If you can focus on those two extremes, you’ll be able to uncover the middle ground.

What good research looks like

By creating a user research plan with purpose, you’ll be well on your way to doing good work. A mixed methods approach means that you don’t only focus on one angle. For example, if you decide just to interview customers, you’ll only get a small number of voices.

"If you decide just to interview customers, you’ll only get a small number of voices."

By leveraging qualitative and quantitative methods, you’ll build a full picture. You can engage with ten people and uncover 100 things, and then engage with 100 people and validate ten things. Here are some of the activities you can use to do good research:

Day zero workshop to launch new initiatives, align objectives and define problems

Expert review - looking at your current product using best practices to identify where users may struggle to achieve the job they are trying to do.

  • Market research
  • Usability testing
  • User surveys
  • User interviews
  • Data analysis
  • Stakeholder analysis
  • Be human-centred

The user should be fundamentally baked into your research process and at the heart of everything you do. Sometimes, research can become a checkbox. You start off with the intention of being customer-centric but get lost in trying to uncover information. That’s why it’s important to test with a small number and use mixed methods at scale. Never forget the why behind what you’re doing - it’s ultimately about understanding the user needs to make the process, product, or service better.

"You start off with the intention of being customer-centric but get lost in trying to uncover information."

The art of doing good user research comes down to having a clear plan. You need to set the scene and understand the purpose of your research, ask valuable questions, and use a range of different methods with the user in mind to build a full and holistic picture.

. . .

Need help with research? We can help you understand your customers' needs, map their entire journey on and offline and arm you with insights to grow your bottom line.

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