Effective user research: Your north star

6 min read David Renwick

The Age of the Customer is well and truly here. In every industry and vertical across the globe, UX professionals now dictate the terms, placing customers at the heart of every design decision. Or at least, this is the new reality that’s unfolding in the organizations and businesses that don’t want to be left behind.

Make no mistake; simply claiming to be the best is no longer enough. To survive and thrive, people need to be placed at the heart. The golden key that will allow organizations to pivot to this new reality lies with that of the user researcher.

But it’s not enough to simply “do user research”. Sure, some customer insight is obviously better than none at all, but to really be useful it needs to be effective research. That’s what this article is all about.

Get comfortable, because this is going to be a long one – for good reason.

Why (effective) user research is so important

You are not your user. As much as you may like to think that you are, you’re not. It can be a tricky proposition to get your head around, especially when we regularly assume that everyone thinks like us. There are 8 billion people out there who have a vastly different set of experiences and perspectives than you. With that in mind, when we start to generalize based on our own personal experiences, this is what’s known as availability bias.

Unfortunately, solving this is issue not as easy as getting into a room with customers and having a chat. People don’t always tell the truth! This isn’t to say that the participant in your last user interview was flat out lying to you, but the things that people say are different from the things that people do. It;’s your job (as a user researcher) to intuit the actual behaviors and actions, and identify their needs based on this data.

When you’re doing your job correctly, you’ve given your organization the best possible chance of success. Everything  – and I mean everything – starts with a solid understanding of your users. Doors will open, paths will reveal themselves – you get the idea.

The qualities of an effective user researcher

Let me preface this section by saying that you don’t have to have all of these qualities in spades, the list below is really just a way for you to better understand some of the traits of an effective user researcher, to get you thinking and on the right path.

  • Curious: User research can be quite repetitive, especially when you get to the 6th user interview and need to ask the same questions. A genuine curiosity about people, the challenges they face and their behaviors will go a long way in helping you to push through.
  • Pragmatic: Being an idealist has its uses, but it’s also important to be pragmatic. As a researcher, you need to operate on a fine line and balance your capacity to do research with business goals, finances and the desires of your stakeholders. Do the most with what you’ve got.
  • Organized: It takes a lot to plan a research project, from scheduling testing sessions to assembling large slide decks for presentations. You’ve got to manage a large number of complex components, so it’s important that you can organize and prioritize.
  • Collaborative: User research is most effective when it’s carried out collaboratively. This means working with your team, with the organization and with other disciplines. Think outside the box: Who stands to benefit from your research and how can you involve them?
  • Empathetic: Real, natural empathy is a rare trait, but adopting an empathetic mindset is something everyone can (and should) learn. Beyond just uncovering insights from your participants, consider what these insights mean and how they all connect. This will truly enable you to understand your users.
  • Sociable: You don’t have to suddenly adopt an extroverted persona, but being actively interested in other people will help you build relationships both inside your organization and with customers.
  • Perceptive: User research means listening and observing. During a user interview or usability test, you need to be able to filter all of the data entering your mind and extract the most relevant insights.
  • Analytical: In a similar vein to perceptiveness, being analytical is also key if you want to understand all of the data that your research will produce. Filter, examine, extract and move on.

How to run user research effectively (and at a low cost)

There are innumerable methods for user research, but many are resource- and time-intensive. What’s more, certain research methods come attached with significant costs.

But, research doesn’t have to be the time and money sink that it can often first appear to be. Certain actions before you ever step into the room with a participant can make a world of difference.

Conduct research at the start

User research is obviously valuable whenever you do it, but you’ll see the biggest impact when you carry it out right the start of a project. Conduct research to get the lay of the land; to learn how and why customers make certain decisions, and where the biggest opportunities lie.

Note: Don’t research in a silo, involve your team, stakeholders and other interested parties.

Have clear goals – and a plan

Every research project needs a clear objective, and that comes from a detailed UX research plan, which includes well-formulated research questions. Every project will have a different question, but they’re the best starting point to ensure research success.

Choose the right methods

There’s no shortage of research methods to choose from, but being an effective user researcher is all about being able to pick the right methods for each project, and use them correctly. Nearly every research project will benefit from using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods in order to generate the most useful insights.

To understand which method to use, it’s a good idea to view them using the following framework:

Source: Nielsen Norman Group
A landscape of user research methods

Involve stakeholders

Bring stakeholders into your research project as early as possible. These are the people that will end up utilizing the results of your work, and chances are they’re the ones who’ll have the most questions at the end. Involve them through consultation, regular updates, the all-too-important presentation at the end of the project and by letting them take notes for you during research sessions.

Wrap up

It’s not enough to simply run a card sort now (although that’s still a very useful exercise). You need to think cohesively about the role of your research in your organization and make sure that you’re as aware of your bias as you are of the various methods and tools available to you. Happy researching!