Formative and Summative User Research Explained!

You may have noticed trade-show or backroom research studies at customer events and possibly your curiosity got the best of you and you wondered what was behind the user research. Maybe you’re developing a product and wondering when is the best time to do user research. The short answer is do research as often as possible. But, when considering the role of user research in the overall product development process, then there are two main research vehicles: formative and summative testing (sometimes referred to as usability testing).

Formative User Research

Formative user research often takes the role of upfront research for decision making during the beginning stages of the design and architecture process to provide insights of where users have difficulty reaching their performance goals with the product or service. And, formative studies can take many forms from focus groups to upfront usability analysis of light engineering concepts.

For a large project, there could be two formative studies: one in the early concept stage where the user experience is fairly unknown and the functionality is pretty undefined. The formative study may contain user workflow concepts with several potential usage scenarios supported in this version of the concept. This upfront approach allows for early validation of the user workflow and the initial user experience decisions around system usage, customer terminology and rough layout.

A second formative usability test may happen when early versions of the software and hardware designs are available to catch issues right at the beginning of the implementation phase.

Summative Usability Testing

Summative usability testing is a quality focused type of study usually performed in the execution phase. A similar test protocol is used as in the formative study but this study provides user acceptance testing criteria before the product is released. Key performance criteria are captured in this kind of testing and pass/fail metrics are often applied to the test.

A summative test also uses additional metrics of users’ success to assess whether the product meets those success metrics and can be released from a user experience perspective to the market.

Key Takeaway

Start formative user research as early and as often as possible in the design and concept phase for a user-centered approach on next generation products. Early user insights inform the core user experience of what the next generation product should be.