Getting UX research right.
It is dangerous to rely on our own perception of the world. The biases of our own personal experiences mean that our beliefs about our services - what goals people have, how they want a service delivered, the values they project on the service – may not be accurate. Many projects are built on shifting sands - rapid social, technological, and cultural changes mean that no products or services are ever fixed forever.
User experience (UX) research is an immensely powerful tool that helps us understand the people who uses our products and services. It helps us to challenge biases, generate empathy, and understand what people truly need. We generate quantitative data (such as website analytics) and qualitative data (such as interviews and workshops) to help us understand what would really help users before we invest time and money into building a finished product.
This early-stage research provides a direction for further exploration, experimentation, and refinement of ideas. Starting off on the wrong foot, however, can create significant problems throughout the design, development, and testing stages. If we choose the wrong direction for prototyping and development, we can end up far away from where we want to be.
Here are some of the most common challenges faced in user research, and the processes and attitudes we apply at Qrious to mitigate them.
Striking the right balance.
It is vital that user research hits the ‘Goldilocks zone’ - narrow enough to be useful, whilst also broad enough to respond to changing circumstances and unexpected insights. Just right.
Overly narrow research tends to happen when a project relies heavily on the experiences and prejudices of a business and the researcher. Often, it means only looking at a small fraction of the available data, so the full picture isn’t clear. It can also involve starting from a fixed and unmovable position - “how can we solve this specific problem?" - whilst remaining blind to other challenges which may be of equal or greater significance. What we think is the problem might be a symptom rather than the cause. Read how we Fall in love with problems.
Take time for reflection and inclusivity.
UX researchers want to identify needs and solve problems. They also typically work under tight financial and time pressures, and multiple projects at once. In these circumstances it is perhaps understandable that a researcher might speak with a handful of people, identify a shared goal, and assume that they speak for all other users. Unfortunately, this is rarely, if ever, the case. It is important to avoid catering to one set of users to the exclusion of others.
UX research is not a one-off.
User research is an ongoing process. Just because people behave in a way now, doesn’t mean that’s how they always will. Behaviour is influenced by a huge range of factors, many of which are unique to individuals and completely out of our control. As a result, it is a mistake to view user research as a single, time-limited activity - it is an ongoing process that should be continually reviewed, refreshed, and critiqued as new information comes to light. These regular periods of reflection and discussion are vital in opening dialogues with clients and users.
‘Big data’ is pervasive in digital industries. It refers to large and diverse sources of information (frequently, but not exclusively, numerical) that companies and governments can draw on get a sense of how large groups of people behave. Whilst big data can be useful, it must be managed carefully. It is easy to forget that these data points - fixed, clear, and authoritative - actually represent individual experiences - nuanced, subjective, and imperfect. Human experiences are complex, and the most useful research embraces that complexity and makes it understandable.
Foster a research culture.
‘Data’ itself is inert. Its value depends entirely on how we decide to interpret and apply it. This requires us to be well informed - to accumulate, curate, and critique enough data to apply this inert asset to outcomes that are active and consequential. We always question our assumptions and try to prove ourselves wrong.
Being well-informed involves taking the time and effort to explore the problem space, to consider the wider context, and to surround ourselves with as much robust evidence as possible. The freedom to explore helps us to find overlapping problems and consider different ways these might be addressed. Even if these problems are not immediately relevant, it is useful to map out the full context to direct future work.
When we begin a new project at Qrious, we work with customers to create a research canvas. This is a shared document agreeing the scope of the project, the wider context, and boundaries that strike the right balance between focused and exploratory. Research canvases are a flexible framework for us to edit as necessary - while ensuring that any changes to the scope of the research are made with total transparency and full agreement from our clients.
Detail of a research canvas, based on models developed by Academic Toolkit.
It is vital to build this flexibility into all projects, but particularly into large-scale ones where it may be months or even years before the final product is launched. If we see that user needs and behaviours change in the interim, we design ways to account for this.
Our favoured approach is to establish a research repository for each of our clients. This is a central source of information where all a client’s research can be collected and managed. This data can be shared throughout organisations (subject to internal permissions and GDPR), to ensure that everyone has access to the same insights and to avoid duplication. We also add review dates to make sure that clients aren’t making decisions based on outdated information. We have found research repositories to be an immensely powerful way to establish a culture of collaboration with our clients.
UX research is a vital part of any project. It can be immensely useful, but it is fraught with problems when it is done badly. In the worst cases it can generate recurrent problems that undermine all subsequent parts of a project. After all, we can’t build the right service if we are reliant on limited or inaccurate information.
At Qrious, the central principles of our UX research approach are:
- take the time to fully explore the research space
- embrace complexity, ambiguity, and individuality
- question our assumptions at every stage of a project
- work with clients to establish this culture of exploration and reflection throughout every project
Although all projects are different and require bespoke approaches, these principles help give us the confidence that we’re answering the right questions your customers are asking.
In the next post of this series, we will look at how to manage complex design projects within large organisations.