The 3 phases of user research in product design

Research, in any of it’s various forms, should play a role in each step of your product building process. Talking to your users is the simplest way to bring certainty and focus to the solutions you are developing, since they are the people you are ultimately building for. The patterns, insights and learnings that can be gained through research will lead you to building a product that gets used and loved.

The trick is to know what role user research plays, which methods of research to utilize, and how it benefits your team each step along the way.

Reduce the unknowns with each step

When you approach a new problem, project, feature, function, etc. you have a lot more unknowns than you have knows. The role of user research is to reduce the unknowns you have each step in the process which will allow your team increased focus on creating the best possible solution.

Unknowns that you’ll face throughout your process can be high-level — “do people have pain points with their current online banking experience? — or incredibly granular — “is this an expected interaction for flipping through cards on desktop?”

Running research continuously throughout your process will make those unknowns become fewer and more specific with each step.

A slight adjustment to ‘the Squiggle’ Design Process diagram by Damien Newman

The 3 phases of user research in the design process

Understand the Problem

Before you start designing any solution, you need to know why the problem is happening. Understanding who is experiencing the problem, what their needs and motivations, and in what context it happens will be the foundation for any solution you create.

This benefits your whole team by uncovering insights for the problem you are trying to solve and establishes the conditions for a successful solution:

“A good solution creates ______ outcome for users”

“A good solution will make users feel _______”

“A good solution can be used easily in _______ and _______ conditions”

Research methods to best help you understand users and their problems:

Field Studies— observe your users in their day-to-day life to see how they experience their problem in-context

User Interviews — conversations with your users to ask questions about their experiences, problems and expectations.

Evaluate Solutions

With a good understanding of the problem, you can begin to explore potential solutions. Whether you have sketches on paper, wireframes, or clickable prototypes, getting them in-front of users will allow to validate if the solutions you are designing are on the right track or not. The goal is to understand why certain functionality and design elements would contribute to (or prevent) someone from using the solution. That information will allow you to refine and iterate on the product before releasing it.

Research methods to help you best validate solutions you have designed:

Prototype Testing — watch your user interact with a mocked-up solution while speaking with them about their experience

Role Playing — use a mocked-up solution with users in a simulated real-world experience to observe how the solution assists them, and fails them

Test the Execution

Now that you have validated your solution, the team can move forward developing it. By investing time into user research up to this point, you can commit to code with confidence that any large issues have been identified and addressed, so there won’t likely be any feedback or issues that requires a large investment of dev time and resources.

With your solution put live (whether in beta or publicly), you can now see how it performs in the wild. The goal is to uncover any remaining functional issues that impact the users’ experience.

Research methods that best help you test your solution’s usability:

Usability Testing — get users to complete certain actions and tasks with your solution to uncover any bugs or experience issues

Product Ride Alongs — passively and remotely watch your users interact with your solution to see how they use it in their real-world context.

React to the feedback

The three phases of research are not absolute and linear every time. Your team needs to remain flexible and react to what you learn along the way, as sometimes you will learn something while testing your prototype that will make you reassess your understanding of the high-level problem.

This structure should give you a general sense of how to employ user research at each stage in your product design process. From here you can begin to tailor it to the needs of your specific problem, project or product.

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