UX Research: A Key Factor for Success in the Design Process
UX research, or design research serves many purposes throughout the design process. It helps us identify, prove or disprove our assumptions, find commonalities across our target audience members, and recognize their needs, goals, and mental models.
As a User Experience Designer, I’d like to share some UX research methods around gathering data with you. My colleagues and I firmly believe that every business will only be successful if a company’s services and products meets the needs and expectations of company’s targeted consumer and user group.
Overall, findings from your research adds credence to your work, increases your understanding, and improve your outcomes better, enhance the service’s utility, users’ acceptance and they actually enjoy using the services and products.
Before I joined SAP, I worked as Information Architect and UX Designer for digital agencies and companies as well as architect and city planner. Both architecture as well as urban planning only cover a certain spectrum of design. It should be no surprise that the underlying research methods have been used as long as human beings have planned buildings and cities, so I still make use of the things I learned in university and my earlier jobs roles. Whether we talk about both the virtual or the brick-and-mortar world, we talk about human beings who live and work with their personal understanding, orientation, fears and worries.
Commonalities of physical world and digital world
There many commonalities between system architecture and urban planning – meaning developing for the physical world versus for software, web, and the digital world. Because after all, they’re both design disciplines, and the principles of good design are universal. Good design should tie together people (who make use of the design) and circumstances; the past, the present, and the future. Pre-Planning and research are vital.
Before starting any new development project, a strong foundation of planning and research need to be done. This includes concept sketches, blueprints, engineering schematics, and plenty of other pre-construction documents must be created. The same thing is true for most digital goods. Concept sketches are used just like in architectural design. But instead of blueprints, web designers use wireframes and instead of engineering schematics, they use site specification documents. These are all vital to making sure the final good does what it’s supposed to and has all the necessary parts.
Research aspects for the physical world involve the applying scientific, technical processes, considerations and features that are involved in planning for various aspects. In the following table, I compare the physical world with the digital world.
|Physical World||Digital World|
|Land Use / Real Estate||Screen Estate / Mobile Design|
|Urban Design / architectural principle and Patterns||Familiar Design / Up-to-date Design and Patterns|
|predicting growth of population and functionalities||predicting growth of users and features|
|zoning, geographic mapping||Zoning / placement of content and features|
|surveying the water supply, identifying transportation patterns, recognizing food supply demands, allocating healthcare and social services||Channel Management of date which and how it gets in to the app or service and where and how it displayed with in the app or pushed to other apps or websites|
Another example I always like to mention are personas – personas are important for the physical world and digital world. (Personas are based and created upon your research in order to represent the different inhabitant and user types that might use and live in the building or city or for the digital world use your service, product, site, or brand. Or in short a – personas are fictional characters which use your physical or digital good in a similar way.)
By the way a few people might think that personas are something new – they are not. The ancient Greek and Roman domestic architects distinguished three general types of residents: townspeople, farmers, and military.
Whether it’s design for the physical or the digital world we depend on the end user of what we do, and we need a close relation and client-designer communication. A well-informed client and early involved user will be happier and easier to deal with than one that’s kept in the dark.
Gathering and synthesizing data
Research has two main parts:
- Gathering data
- Synthesizing that data to improve utility and to ensure functioning and usability.
The initial research phase of projects is focused on learning about project requirements from stakeholders and learning about the needs and goals of the end users who ultimately must deal and work with the final service or product.
Researchers will conduct interviews, collect surveys, observe prospects or current users, and review existing literature, data, or analytics. Then, iteratively throughout the design process, the research focus shifts to usability and sentiment.
Researchers may also conduct usability tests or A/B tests, do interview users about the underlying process, and generally test assumptions that will improve the service or product and their look, feel, and haptic, even we talk in our case about the digital world.
While it’s not realistic to use the full set of methods on a given project, close to all projects would benefit from multiple research methods and from combining insights. The below list includes methods I use in my day to day work as often as project timeline and budget allows.
- Field study + user interview (watch, notice, study, ask, and listen to the real users in their context interacting with the application and services)
- Diary (gathering of daily or recurring activities as they occur give contextual insights about real-time user behaviors and needs)
- Stakeholder interview / gathering of requirements and constraints
- Competitive analysis
- Design review
- Persona building
- Task analysis
- User story mapping vs. user experience mapping: I tend to think of the difference between the two as a matter of granularity – user experience mapping is the mapping of the experience that users go through while using your product or service (it’s about the big picture).
The user story map includes the set of functions/features/tasks for that product (it’s about the smaller picture).
For example, when I’m doing discovery research, I’ll be mapping out the experience of the user (e.g. having a baby). Within that experience, there will be several products that the user will use (e.g. applying for paid parental leave). Once we decide which problem area we’re tackling, we start narrowing down onto that area and develop a user story map based on the identified user needs. Based on the having a baby example, I guess it is crystal clear that emotions are very important. However, I cannot emphasize strongly enough that putting emotions (happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, or anger) and circumstances when and where something is done (morning hours, business hours, spare time, standing in an elevator, bad lighting, among others) to the mappings can be very important, too.
- Journey mapping and use cases: the customer journey gives you the overall picture – just like a business process. During a journey you may have many interactions along the employees or costumer software. I prefer use-cases to describe these interactions, which can be used as software requirement as well. A use case outlines how a specific user in their role will perform a task. It outlines, from a user’s point of view, his and the system’s behavior. You can, e.g., write a use case with the employee or customer as main actor.
- Card sorting
- Prototype feedback & testing (clickable or paper prototypes)
- Qualitative usability testing (in-person or remote)
- Benchmark testing
- Accessibility evaluation
- Analytics review
- Search-log analysis
- Usability-bug review
- Reviewing frequently asked questions (FAQ)
Quantitative and qualitative research
During the research, two types of data are gathered – quantitative and qualitative research. Everyone in the team and the researcher should be sensible of that fact and must be keenly aware of these two types of data.
Quantitative research offers answers to “How many or how much “, for instance…
Quantitative research is most valuable in understanding the statistical likelihood and on what is happening on a page, within a service, or in an app. It is any research that can be measured numerically.
- “How many users clicked this or that interaction or option?”
- “What percentage of users are able to find the call to action?”
It can be used when you have a working product or at the beginning or end of a design process. And it is often called the “benchmarking” type of researching.
The outcomes of a quantitative research are statistically meaningful results that are likely to be replicated in a different context and usage.
Quantitative research is based on many participants – often around 30 to 50 for functions, sections of a site, or an application. You can select even more participants for a whole site, store, or service. This allows an indirect, summative evaluation of the usability of a site through metrics such as task-completion rate, task time, or satisfaction ratings and is typically used to track the usability of a system over design iterations.
Qualitative research brings light into the darkness and provide an understanding of …
It often takes the form of interviews or conversations. Qualitative research helps us getting clarity or an idea WHY users do the things they do or do not. And it is often called the “soft” type of researching. Charming is, that it can be used anytime, e.g. during redesign or as soon as you have a final working product.
- “Why did users not see or use this or that interaction or option?”
- “What else did users notice or miss on the page?”
The outcomes of a qualitative research are the learnings and findings based on the researcher’s impressions, interpretations, and prior knowledge.
Qualitative research involves a small number of users. Depending on time and budget and project scope this should be 3-10 users. It directly identifies the main usability problems in an interface. It is often used formatively, to inform the design process, and channel it in the right direction.
Conclusion and timing
At every stage in the design process, different research methods can keep the team efforts on the right track, in agreement with true user needs and not imaginary ones.
One of the questions I get again and again is, “When should I conduct UX or design research?” Most often my answer is: “the sooner, the better – and as you ask I guess it’s been a while since you did one, right?”. In other words: do user research at whatever stage you are. The sooner, the more impact the findings will have!
Permit me to remark …
… that there are follow-up articles – which might be interesting:
How A / B Testing Improves Your Product and Service Launch