When I prepared for my first anthropological field research in West Africa, I carefully planned and packed all the stuff I was going to carry. My kit had to be portable, and it had to include everything I really needed to do my work (and stay sane).
In the user researcher’s portable kit of tools, there are a core set of items that let us get the job done. These essential articles pack very tight, because they’re made up of skills and attitudes. The following travel pack gives me the confidence to get the job done in any setting – be it a conference room of hostile contractors and distressed clients, an animated gathering of a rural women’s agricultural cooperative, a dimly-lit coffee shop for guerrilla usability testing, or a well-lit, well-managed usability lab.
My take on doing research in the digital realm is rather prosaic. User research is practical, applied work, and its purpose is to help with better decision making. It takes the tools and methods of inquiry used across scientific disciplines, and it uses them in a narrowly focused way, to make products work better or help teams solve design problems. We are the ninja of research!
Knowledge and Skills
As research ninjas, we have to be adept and rigorous. Our recommendations guide the work development teams do, and change how systems are built. In other words, our work matters, so it needs to be right.
The keys to successful user research are strong planning, solid execution, and persuasive presentation. A lot of specific skills and areas of knowledge roll up under each of those headings.
For a start, planning is guided by an understanding of the client’s context and issues (e.g. unfindable content, low customer satisfaction scores). Expressing the research problem is the first step in planning.
It is also essential to articulate an overarching study goal or research question that guides the whole endeavor. The study goal is often confused with data collection questions, but they are not the same thing. An example of a study goal is: “Discover the key barriers preventing users from signing up for an online account.” On the other hand, questions aimed at learning user demographics, what time of day users access a website, or how people feel about a feature are data collection questions.
Good researchers command of a range of research methods, have the skills to analyze their findings, and have honed a talent for translating insights into actionable recommendations.
Data collection methods and sources are many, and include interviews, usability testing, usage and feedback data, contextual inquiry, and much more. The tantalizing pitfall that many clients and researchers fall into is to decide upon a method before identifying the problem and the study goal. Do not select a method first!
Making sense of research findings (and properly planning research in the first place) requires a firm grip of statistics. This proven practice for collecting, analyzing, and interpreting numerical data allows us to make inferences about the whole based on observations of a representative sample. Sounds like user research in a nutshell.
Want your research to sit on a shelf? Talk a lot, but say nothing. If you just explain your usability test and show your charts, you haven’t finished your work. Good researchers deliver good ideas about solving the problem. It’s the whole reason for having done the research in the first place.
One of the most important, under-taught skills of user research is the ability to create and deliver a powerful presentation. Being persuasive on paper and in person is key to delivering research value. Researchers must present their messages in ways that speak to the needs, expectations, and attention spans of clients and team. The skilled researcher leads the listener to make good decisions by telling a clear story that threads together the problem, the study design, the findings, and the actionable advice. A persuasive presentation is also highly engaging – and short.
In the context of a user experience practice, research work has been, for me, a matter of continually unpacking, improving upon, and repacking this core set of attitudes and skills. Each piece of the kit can be quite simple to acquire and apply, and yet I find the work in its parts and as a whole boundlessly challenging and interesting. Making it ultimately quite satisfying, too, is that it shares the aim of all good user experience design – to make parts of the world better, and create personal value for other people.