19 user research tips to make you a better researcher

10 min read David Renwick

At Optimal Workshop, we’re always looking to further the practice of user research. That’s why we developed a powerful set of user research tools focused on quantitative and qualitative user testing.

This past year was a big one for us. We attended UX conferences all over the globe and met with researchers and designers in all sorts of organizations. We also continued to build up a solid list of best-practice tips from our community.

That’s what this article is all about – sharing our top user research tips. Some of these are as time-tested and true as the practice of user research itself, and others are starting to take off. Let’s dive right in, but if you’ve got any of your own, feel free to let us know!

1. Extend an olive branch to those unfamiliar with user research

In an ideal world, user research would sit at the heart of every organization. It’s a practice that benefits other teams and specializations and improves itself thanks to outside input. But, building those bridges isn’t always easy – especially if the practice of user research is still quite new within a company.

So what’s the best approach? It’s as simple as extending an olive branch to relevant areas of the organization. Typically, this means product, marketing, sales and data science teams. At Optimal Workshop, we’ve found that a great way to break these inter-team barriers down is simply by going out for a coffee and talking about the ways in which your two disciplines can collaborate.

If you’re interested in learning how to explain the value of user research, check out this article we wrote here.

2. Understand the value of a combined research and data science team

Research and data science are often siloed within organizations, but this is a missed opportunity. Data allows you to identify problems and dismiss assumptions, helping you to figure out what to do next. Sound familiar? User research and data science use different methodologies to answer the same questions, and when combined together the outputs can be much more fruitful. As speaker Mila Dymnikova said at UX New Zealand this year: “Data science can add a competitive edge to your UX team”.

We don’t have an actionable point for this research tip, other than to head over to your colleagues in data science and start up a conversation. If you don’t have any data scientists, think about the areas of your organization where people are utilizing data on a regular basis and start there.

3. Always establish clear research questions

Before you even think about running a usability test, it’s important to establish your research questions. Creating these at the beginning of your project will help you identify which methods to use, what you’ll discuss with stakeholders and where you’ll be able to uncover existing data.

As for example research questions, here are 2 to get you thinking. Remember: research questions should be both actionable and specific.

  • “How do people currently use the wishlist feature on our website?”
  • “How do our current customers go about tracking their orders?”
Three researchers plan on a whiteboard.
It’s important to work together to establish clear research questions.

4. Focus on facts, not opinions

Whether you’re having a discussion with a stakeholder, a designer or a user, it’s all too easy to interpret opinion as fact. Steve Krug, in a 2005 interview with BoxesAndArrows, explained this quite well: “One of the problems web teams face is that we all have a lot of personal experience as web users, so we all think we know what makes a site good”.

“As a result, most design discussions are full of strong personal opinions, usually disguised as facts… it’s very appealing to have someone you can turn to for definitive answers”.

Being able to discern between a fact and an opinion isn’t always easy, and it’s something that takes time to master. Before you head into your next stakeholder consultation, try to recognize when someone may be voicing a personal opinion instead of an impartial statement.

5. Reassure your interviewees

Before you start an in-person user test, one of the best things you can do for your participants is to make sure they’re comfortable. You can do this by explaining what’s expected of them, that you’re not testing them (you’re testing the design/product) and to ask questions if they need to. After all, the user testing process is a two-way street.

This is partly why we recommend all user researchers take a turn in the
participant seat and go along to a user testing session.

This is a great video from Google Ventures on the user interview process.

6. Figure out the correct location

Before you book a meeting room for your next usability test, consider the importance of location. You may not want to book a quiet meeting room if the thing you’re testing is often used in a loud or otherwise distracting environment. Take an app for construction workers as an example. You may find that you get much more useful data by carrying out your usability test on a loud construction site, so you can see what your users will typically have to deal with when using your app.

7. Combine OptimalSort and Chalkmark

There’s no overstating the importance of card sorting when building an IA or testing first impressions when reviewing designs. That’s why OptimalSort and Chalkmark are so useful. But, did you know you can use these tools together too?

Here are 3 of the ways you can combine OptimalSort and Chalkmark:

  1. Test the viability of your concepts and find out which one your users prefer most
  2. Test your IA through two different lenses: non-visual and visual
  3. Find out if your labels and their matching icons make sense to users.

Check out the expanded article here where we explain each of the above approaches.

8. Use Reframer to make sense of your qualitative user research

Most qualitative research is, by its very nature, messy. Unlike the relatively clean, number-focused world of quantitative research, the world of qualitative research is all about the ‘why’. It’s exploratory, focused on reasons, opinions, behaviors and motivations. So how do you make sense of all this ‘messy’ data? Our qualitative research tool Reframer is one of the easiest ways.

Here’s how it works: When running a user test, store your observations in Reframer. Then, add tags to classify each observation. Tags might be things like sentiment (happy, sad, frustrated, etc) or based on actions or progress (succeeded or failed).

9. Understand the value of observers

Forget about lengthy presentations to your organization. Bringing people into your user testing sessions as observers (or notetakers) is one of the best ways to show the value of user research to others. Think about it. You’re able to:

  • Put other people within your organization in front of your users
  • Demonstrate the value of talking to users about how they use your products and services
  • Build up a common understanding of what research is and why it’s useful.

Getting these people into your research sessions is as easy as asking. The next time you come across someone from sales, marketing or your product teams, ask if they’d like to come along to your next user test.

10. Share your findings within your organization

Research for research’s sake is only viable in certain organizations – typically institutions like universities and colleges. In most other instances, research should be socialized with the wider organization.

Of course, it’s also worth noting that research should be carried out with the support of other teams from the outset. That is to say, you don’t want to turn up to a meeting and drop 3 months’ worth of research on your marketing team. Ideally, you’d work with those other teams to figure out their needs, carry out the research, then communicate it back to them.

Two researchers collaborate in a meeting room.
Socializing your research with others in your organization is a great way to show the value of user research.

11. In a user interview, just listen

A user interview is an opportunity to hear real peoples’ thoughts on your product or service or a particular problem you’re studying. To that end, listen! Of course you’ll need to ask your questions, but remember to sit back and let them speak as much as they need to. Jumping in whenever there’s a lull in the conversation will only mean you’re potentially cutting them off when they may have more to say.

12. Recruit diverse participants

It’s always a good idea to recruit a diverse range of participants when you’re running your user tests. Try and get a good spread of jobs or roles, experience with what you’re testing, ethnicity and gender. You may also want to consider recruiting people whose native language is not what you’re using in your product or service. Using recruitment services is a good way to capture a spread of people if you’re struggling within your traditional circles.

13. Take time to unpack testing sessions with your team

Once you’ve wrapped up a testing session, take the data back to your team and unpack it as a group. Analyzing the results of your test in a roundtable format will mean you’re more likely to pick up on more themes and patterns than you would alone. Of course, this can be a hard thing to do, especially if you’re used to working through your results alone.

We find it’s helpful to ask a range of different people within your organization, such as data scientists, sales staff and designers, in addition to user researchers.

14. Run a survey within your organization

User research is often about turning outwards to gather opinions from the people using your product – but it’s also a useful internal tool. Use the same methods and processes you practice on your users to gather internal data. For example, run a survey about the way research functions within your organization, with a focus on how other people think research should operate.

15. Don’t rely on your memory

It’s all too easy to get caught up in the moment during a research session and forget to take notes. But don’t rely on your memory for anything! Whenever you hear an interesting point or think of a good next step, note it down. This is partly why we recommend bringing along a guest notetaker to take over this job for you.

16. Get your users to tell you a story

Instead of asking your users direct questions, get them to tell you a story. This is a great way to learn about how they think about something from start to finish. It’s quite a simple concept. For example, imagine you want to better understand how your users buy projects from your online store. Instead of asking them a direct question about the checkout process, ask to explain how they go about purchasing a product online. Besides learning more about the area you’re interested in, you’ll find that they give you useful background information on the process that you can use as part of your research.

17. Get a mentor

This isn’t a user research-specific tip, but it’s one that’s worth mentioning all the same. Getting a mentor is one of the best ways to progress your career, as they’ll be able to help you figure out where you want to go and how to get there. A good mentor will also be able to point out development opportunities and even keep an ear to the ground for potential new jobs that might suit you. In a nutshell, a mentor will help you to improve.

18. Get a mentee

On the flip side, it’s also a good idea to consider taking a mentee under your wing. This type of relationship can be fruitful for both parties, with mentees able to gain much of what we discussed above, and mentors able to reinforce their own learnings by teaching them to someone else.

19. Remember: You are not your user

Back in 2010, in the early growth days of social media, Google launched a new product called Google Buzz. Everything seemed set for a great launch. The product had gone through internal testing 20,000 Google employees and it had significant buy-in. Unfortunately, Google Buzz launched with a feature that generated a number of complaints and had to be quickly taken out. Shortly after that, Google Buzz was shut down entirely.

There’s a key lesson here for anyone involved in product development: You are not your user! Also known as the false-consensus effect, Raluca Budiu explained it best writing for Nielsen Norman Group: “Designers, developers, and even UX researchers fall prey to the false-consensus effect, projecting their behaviors and reactions onto users.”

Avoiding this bias isn’t too difficult. Always keep your users front of mind, involve them in the design process and make a point to interact with them regularly.

Try our powerful UX research platform

Understanding the importance of user research is just the first step. To get usable insights that you can use to make decisions you need the right set of tools – and that’s why we’ve developed a suite of 5. OptimalSort can show you how people think the pages on your website should be grouped, and Treejack can show you where people are getting lost. Try them all for free here.