User Research: 10 Techniques to Get Started or Improve

Paul Boag

We all know we should do user research, but making it happen can be hard. This post will show you ten ways you can do user research and suggest where you should focus.

How well do you know your users? It is a question I ask all the time, and people rarely feel they have a good handle on who their users are and what they want. That is where user research can help.

But the problem is that user research feels intimidating. To help address that, I want to use this post to give you a quick introduction to user research. I will share with you ten techniques you can use to improve your understanding of users.

But, before we jump into those techniques we need to begin by answering a more fundamental question – what do we want to know about our users?

What You Should Seek to Learn From User Research

In my experience, most of the research into target audiences within organisations has a marketing slant to it. For example, if you look at the average persona, they tend to focus on demographic information and personal taste.

Personas that focus heavily on audience demographics and tastes are not particular useful in user experience design.

From a marketing perspective, this makes a lot of sense. To appeal to somebody, you need to understand their values and attitudes. But, when creating a great user experience, our user research needs a different focus.

When I undertake user research, the emphasis is placed more on what a person wants to do, rather than what kind of person they are. Both are useful, but focusing on what a person wants to do informs content, site structure and functionality.

In particular, I tend to look at the following areas:

The User’s Journey

An interaction does not happen in isolation. It is a part of a larger journey. The user passes through many steps before and after interacting with your website. Understanding these steps is crucial to designing a good experience.

The User’s Questions

Most user’s come to a site with questions they need answering. Those could be as broad as “does this company provide the services I need” to specific questions around how your offering works. If we do not know those questions, the website will not meet their needs.

The User’s Objections

Many of the questions the user has are concerns or objections. They are reasons why they might be hesitant to take action. We need to know these objections so we can address them.

The User’s Tasks

Users don’t only have questions; they also have things they want to do. That might be buying something, or contacting the company. A good website has to support these tasks, and so we must be clear about what they are.

What Influences the User

Users do not decide to act on your website in a vacuum. A range of things from reviews to your competition influence their behaviour. User research should uncover these influencing factors so you can address them.

What Interactions the User Has With Your Company

Again, the website doesn’t exist in isolation. Users interact with a company in many different ways. They use online channels like social media, as well as offline, such as a call centre. Understanding where the website fits into these interactions is essential.

How the User Is Feeling

State of mind is an aspect of user research often overlooked, and yet it plays a big part in how a user views a website. Our state of mind impacts our cognitive loadand the time we are willing to invest in a site.

The User’s Ultimate Goal

When a user comes to your site or uses your app, they are trying to achieve something. They have a goal that they want to reach. Understanding that goal helps us to accommodate better the user’s needs.

The Pain Points the User Needs Help Overcoming

Often the user’s goal is to address a problem they are facing. This pain point has driven them to look for a solution, and they want to know whether your company can provide that solution. User research will reveal what that problem is and how the user expresses it in their mind.

So now we know the kind of thing we want to learn from our user research, let’s look at the techniques we can use to undercover that information.

10 User Research Techniques

Organisations often know far more about its customers than it realises. The problem is this information is distributed across the entire organisation.

For example, the customer service team may well have records of the common questions they get asked when customers call them.

Equally, salespeople spend time with users every day and so understand a lot about them including the objections they have to buying.

Then there is the marketing team who will have done market research, and the IT department that will have access to analytics.

Before you do more research, check that you have access to everything the organisation already knows about its customers. Doing this will not only make you much more informed, but also help you to identify gaps in your knowledge which you can fill with user research.

When it comes time to fill in those gaps in our knowledge, we have an enormous range of techniques available to us. Below I outline ten and explain a little about when you would use them.

Surveys

Surveying has long been a tool of market researchers everywhere, and we use them in user research too.

There are two types of surveys that I particularly favour when carrying out user research. These are top task analysis and barrier surveying.

Top task analysis is a technique for better understanding what it is users want to achieve on your website. There is an excellent article on A List Apart explaining the technique in more detail, and I would highly recommend you check it out. It is especially useful for informing information architecture and visual hierarchy.

Surveys can be used to better understand why users do not act on your site.

Barrier surveying seeks to understand what the barriers are that prevent a user from taking action on a site. We can achieve that by displaying a survey when users go to leave your website without taking action. The survey then asks them why they decided not to act and provides multiple options for them to choose between.

Interviews

Interviews are the backbone of user research. They are held in one of two formats, individually or in groups.

Both have their place, and the group format can be appealing because it allows you to talk to many people simultaneously. But, I tend to favour interviewing people individually.

Individual interviews avoid group dynamics where quiet people are overlooked. They also avoid dominant people swaying the entire discussion.

There is no magic formula for interviews and no set questions you should ask. But, often the conversation will cover areas such as:

  • The user’s background.
  • The use of technology in general.
  • How they are using the product.
  • The user’s objectives and motivations.
  • The user’s pain points.

Mapping Workshops

If you do decide to meet people in groups, you might be better running a customer journey mapping workshop. Instead of interviewing people, carry out a series of exercises to visualise what their experience has been like.

A mapping workshop helps you to know your users. But, it also provides deep insights into their journey and the various issues that arose during it.

Participatory Design

Not that journey mapping is the only workshop exercise you can do with users. There are lots of opportunities to include the user in the design process. That provides all kinds of insights into their goals, questions, tasks and pain points.

If the idea of getting users involved in site design makes you nervous, get them designing a book jacket. That will give you insights into their priorities.

You can involve users in wireframing key pages, moodboarding or writing content. Most of the exercises we do with clients would be much improved by involving users in the mix too.

Card sorting

The most common way of including the user in the design process is card sorting. Card sorting helps ensure your user interface is built around your target audiences mental model. It also avoids falling back on organisational jargon.

There are two types of card sorting, open and closed. Open asks users to organise content in any way that makes sense to them. Closed card sorting gets users to arrange content into predefined categories.

In a card sorting exercise, users organise information into stacks that make sense to them.

In either case, you learn a lot more about the users mental model. You also learn about the kind of information they want as they will be quick to tell you where they feel content is missing.

Usability testing

Another alternative to user interviews is usability testing. You could argue this is not a user research technique because it is about testing the interface, rather than understanding the person. But, usability testing does provide valuable insights into the user. It helps us understand their mental model, tasks, questions and general approach.

The fact that usability testing provides insights both about the interface and the user, makes it an efficient use of time. Also, the outcomes can feel more tangible than an interview.

If you are looking to do usability testing for the first time I would recommend reading Rocket Surgery Made Easy by Steve Krug.

Because usability testing is about the interface and not the participant, I often find people relax a little bit and open up. That helps gain valuable insights into their thinking that would be missed if they were more guarded.

You can carry out usability testing remotely. But, if you are looking for insights into the people you are testing with, I would recommend meeting in person. You will lose too much non-verbal communication when communicating remotely.

In-Field Studies

There is only one thing that beats meeting people in person, and that is to meet those people in their homes or place of work. Going to users rather than having them come to you makes all of the difference in the world.

First, users are much more relaxed, leading to more honest and open conversations. But, secondly and more importantly, you get much deeper insights by being able to see their environment.

Seeing where people access your website or product, allows you to see their context and influencing factors.

The environment has a massive impact on somebody’s experience, and that is valuable to understand. Not only that, but seeing their environment gives you insights into them as a person.

Social Media Monitoring

Of course, the problem with interviews and workshops is that they are time-consuming. They also require access to end users, which is not always easy to get. So what do you do if time and access are limited?

Well, I find that social media can provide fascinating insights into users and what they want. Noting what people say about your company online gives insights into their questions and frustrations.

Mention is a good tool for tracking mentions of your products online.

Looking at the profiles of those who interact with the company will give more general insights into who they are. Also, monitoring related keywords to your business will help identify pain points and goals.

Site Monitoring

We can also look at how people are using our sites.

  • What are people searching on?
  • Which pages do they spend the most time engaging with?
  • What route are they taking through the site?
  • What screen elements hold their attention?

All these things and more give you insights into how the user is thinking and what they want.

The other massive advantage of site monitoring is that you are observing real users, completing real tasks. Unlike other user research techniques, users are unaware of your presence and so are not influenced by you.

Fullstory is just one of the amazing tools available for tracking user behaviour online.

Tools such as Google Analytics or screen recorders like Fullstory make this monitoring easy, and so there is little reason not to be running this kind of user research on an ongoing basis.

User Diaries

The drawback of site monitoring is that you don’t get insights into what people are thinking, and even in an interview setting you only get a snapshot. One way around this problem is to ask users to keep a diary of their experience over a more extended period.

I will be honest; it is not an approach I use a lot. But, it is valuable when trying to improve the experience of a customer.

This is especially true when that customer has a prolonged interaction with the company. For example, keeping a diary for buying on an Ecommerce site makes less sense. But, when purchasing a service from a company, a diary would prove more valuable.

Which of the above techniques you use are dependant on time, project circumstances and the availability of users. However, doing anything is better than doing no user research, so don’t feel put off if you cannot do much. Even collating what you already know as an organisation will go a long way, as long as it is used to inform decisions. The problem is that all too often the user research is ignored, which is why visualisation is so important.

3 Ways You Can Visualise User Research

For user research to be useful, it needs to become a part of every decision you make, and that means it needs to be visible when making decisions. Unfortunately too often user research is confined to some report in a drawer or a slide deck that somebody presented once. We need to do better.

As a bare minimum we should be producing empathy maps.

Create Empathy Maps

In many ways, empathy maps are like personas. They focus on a fictional or real person and describe various traits about that person. While personas focus on demographics, an empathy map is about tasks, questions, pain points and experience.

Empathy maps are easy to create, but they suffer the same danger as a report. They can end up in a drawer and never referred to again.

By turning an empathy map or persona into a poster you avoid it being ignored in some drawer somewhere.

To avoid this problem, I recommend turning your empathy maps into designs that you can display on the wall. By turning them into a poster and ensuring they are visible, you increase the likelihood of them getting consideration.

The same is also true of customer journey maps.

Map the User’s Journey

An empathy map is a snapshot of what we know about the user. It is a summary of their behaviour. However, in reality, behaviour changes over time. The questions people ask, the tasks they are trying to complete and even how they feel will alter depending on where they are in the buying process.

To reflect this idea of the user being on a journey you can create something called a customer journey map. That represents the stages a user passes through in their experience. It also highlights different critical characteristics about the user at each of those stages.

A customer journey map shows the stages a user passes through and different critical information about the user at those stages.

What information you capture about the user as they go through the journey is up to you, but often it reflects similar criteria to an empathy map.

Once again, this needs to be visualised in a way to ensure that everybody takes user research into account during a project. But if you want to adopt a truly user-centric approach, you may wish to use story cards.

Adopt User Story Cards

Most projects have some form of specification that outlines what the project will deliver. That typically focuses on functionality and content. But what if you started from a different premise? What if you started from the user research and specified the project based on user needs?

User story cards allow you to do precisely that. They define the project as a series of statements about the user and what they want to do. Each statement consists of three parts:

  • The audience.
  • The task.
  • The objective.

So for example, a user story card for this blog might be:

I am a digital project manager. I want to sign up to the newsletter so that I can keep up to date with the latest user experience design techniques.

A single project will have many audiences, with each audience wanting to do many different tasks. The result can be a large number of user story cards.

However, by framing the project with story cards, you embed the user research into the final deliverable.

An Introduction to User Research

I am aware that this post (long though it is) is far from comprehensive. However, it should act as an introduction to user research and the tools available to you. Hopefully, it will encourage you to at least do some form of research before starting on your next project.

The most important thing to remember is that even a little user research is better than none. If nothing else it will demonstrate the value to you and your stakeholders. Hopefully, that will encourage further investment in it later down the line.

Stock Photos from PopTika/Shutterstock

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