User research allows us to move beyond assumptions to identify how we can best support our users. Great user research needs to be inclusive, non-biased and focused.
Why do we need user research?
The users of any given product or services could be internal or external. In most cases, it’s both.
When you understand your users, you are more likely to design products and services that work well for them.
Knowing your users better means you can:
- allocate your resources more appropriately
- provide digital tools that make background processes more efficient
- improve accessibility
- free human resources to focus on the most vulnerable citizens.
So how do we learn more about our users?
What do we mean by “user research”?
User research looks to unearth the buried treasure in a way that captures an individual’s experiences, motivations and struggles.
User researchers help their organisation empathise with the people they design for and build up a genuine understanding of their daily lives, routines and the tasks they wish to perform.
As researchers, we try to find the truth in amongst often conflicting stories from different people. We realise that people can be unreliable witnesses: they might not know why they are doing the things they are doing, especially in times of distress. There are also those who don’t want to tell you about their experience, or don’t tell you the whole truth.
Conducting user research helps us fill those gaps about our users and create services that meet their needs.
We use a range of techniques and approaches when we research.
Observational (ethnographic) research
Typically occurring early in the research process, this technique is all about observing how users behave. It helps us understand what they are trying to do and the context within which they experience our services.
User stories help to create a simplified description of a service by describing the type of user, what they want and why. User stories can help us understand some of the needs and aspirations we may have missed.
Here’s an example of a user story:
As a new dog owner
I want to find local parks
So that I can safely exercise my dog
Having a guided, individual discussion with users helps us better understand their lived experience and the circumstances that led them to access our services.
During a focus group session, we ask a group of people about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a service or concept.
After we have developed an early prototype, usability testing helps us understand how users interact with the prototype, which allows us to refine it quickly and often.
How can we make user research inclusive?
To build a good service, we need to consider the experience of a wide range of users.
This includes people who:
- are living with disabilities
- are culturally and linguistically diverse
- need support to use the service.
Being inclusive isn’t just about the service, but also about the way we conduct our research. This means that we need to think inclusively when recruiting participants, selecting locations and conducting our sessions.
What makes a good user researcher?
Good researchers need to be empathetic, curious, good listeners and able to put themselves in the shoes of the user. They should be able to probe sensitively, as sometimes users can be too polite or overwhelmed to tell us their stories.
Questions need to be open and curious so that we capture a range of different experiences and opinions. We need to ignore our own bias and ensure that we don’t design research that presents loaded questions to our users.