If You Do Nothing Else: DIY UX Research Tips

An Anti-Lesson

Dear small, scrappy start-ups and companies with no budget to hire a UX researcher: when you conduct UX research in-house, if nothing else, consider these tips to get the quality feedback you urgently need.

I accept every invitation I can to be a user testing participant, whether from a tiny start up in the Mission to a Silicon Valley office park. Invariably there is knowledge to be gained from the experience — but far too often it is an anti-lesson.

Gaining meaningful, forthright feedback from users is absolutely critical — yet the process of acquiring it is deceptively difficult. Stating “we’re not testing you, we’re testing the website” and asking a few follow-up questions will not suffice.

If, among the many hats you wear, you must conduct UX research yourself, observing the following tips should help you get closer to the credible data you need.

Americans: Lying > Hurting Feelings

Understanding the following will go a long way toward designing more effective UX research sessions: Americans have a deeply-ingrained cultural tradition of positivity, and we often lie, hedge, or hold back honest thoughts rather than give direct, critical feedback for fear of hurting feelings.

Therefore, to bring out a participant’s inner Simon Cowell, you must cultivate a context in which one can be completely authentic.

This means: remove all people who may be perceived as creating the product from the research process. The participant will likely feel uneasy if the creator of the work she is to critique is observing or part of the discussion. I’ve known in-house UX researchers to lie and say that they had nothing to do with the website in question so the participant wouldn’t fear hurting feelings. Though I can’t condone outright lies I do understand the impulse.

For example: recently, as a participant, I spoke directly about a feature that I felt was misguided. One of the four people in the room started giggling. I felt like I stepped into a heated personal debate among employees over that feature; perhaps the laugher disliked or campaigned against it, and felt my comment was public validation. Whatever the reason, no participant should be put into such a position.

An unaffiliated researcher, ideally in another location (is there a coffee shop near the office?) would be ideal.

Explain explicitly that the site is a work in progress

To the layperson a high-fidelity mockup looks like the company is at the 90-yard line with regard to bringing the site to completion. The more work the participant perceives has gone into a site, the less likely she is to speak freely, fearing that your company may have to undo untold hours of work to address her concerns. Be sure to explain clearly and explicitly that a high-fidelity mockup is quickly and easily created; this will go a long way toward relaxing inhibitions.

“You can’t teach charisma.”

A professor once said this in a seminar during my first semester of graduate school. At first I was startled by what I interpreted to be bitter cynicism and pessimism, but years later I realize it was raw honesty, “tough love” if you must. The person conducting UX research must genuinely like engaging with people and be utterly at ease in the somewhat stilted conversation that is a user test. This cannot be faked. Being inherently charming and able to put people at ease really is a gift. Be honest with yourself: if you don’t truly look forward to conducting UX research, someone else would likely be better for the job — even if there is a small price to pay.

Be gracious

Remember that coffeehouse I mentioned earlier? Treating your participants to a chai and croissant is the absolute least you can do to acknowledge their valuable time — and it must be rewarded somehow. Whether a modest gift certificate, bauble or gift bag, honoring your participants for giving you the valuable input you need is non-negotiable and the minimal baseline for professionalism. I received a sincere “thank you” as I departed my in-office session recently. It wasn’t enough.

Understanding the tremendous value of quality UX research is half the battle; only executing it well will give your team the insights they need to create the optimal end product and ideal user experience.

Marie Mika is a UX researcher in San Francisco, CA.

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