User Research Process

“User research focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies.”
(User Research Basics)

Some of the methods of user research include: card sorting, interview, surveys, usability testing etc.

What did I do?

This week, I went through the process of researching information of potential users through observation. Observation is the active acquisition of information from a primary source (Wikipedia.org). Adding onto this, observations record what physically happened through a descriptive and non-subjective lens.

Visual representation of what an “observation” might look like. (source: https://www.reference.com/world-view/systematic-observation-psychology-62ca7bb505ed13ff)

I went out into the commuting field and observed persons on the bus. The goal was to observe people to determine if something could be considered a practice — behaviors that is repeated or seen throughout a great range of persons — on a bus. I sat on a bus and jotted short notes as I saw things occur for about 40 minutes. These notes helped me recall specific moments that I observed when I went back to refer it to write the field notes.

Example (and a non-example) of an observation note

Of the few practices that I concluded, one of them was how people scan their ORCA cards through their wallet.

An example of a descriptive, non-subjective note would be something like, “Three people entered the bus in a line. First person, a woman, scanned a red wallet on the ORCA card machine. Second and third person, both male, scanned the back of their card on the machine. The second person had to scan twice after the machine made a beeping noise prior to his second attempt.”

A non-example would be something like, “I saw a happy man riding the bus next to his girlfriend. They were a happy couple because they were holding hands… Some people got angry at the machine for not working properly.” Sentences like these are things that is described through a subjective lens because we don’t know how people are feeling merely through observation.

A picture of the card scanning system on a bus. (source: seattlepostglobe.org)

Reflections

Now that I am reflecting about the process of user research through observation, there were a couple questions that were raised: (a) how accurate are field notes that are recalled from the jottings (accuracy of memory very much dependent on the observer)? and, (b) how (exactly) is this information applied to a design process?

(a) accuracy of field notes

This question arose as I was struggling to recall some parts of the observation that did not necessarily stand out to me. I realized that it is important for the jottings to make sense to me personally because its purpose is to serve my best interest to help me remember a lot of details from the observation field. It also suggests that I should refer to the jottings in a shorter time interval if I want to make the most out of the time spent out in the field. My memory of my experience diminished every day that I did not refer to the jottings to recall.

(b) how is this applied

I had (and am still having) a difficult time connecting these newly acquired information to something that can bring insight to a design process. It is hard to see how these notes can contribute to research but I think the important takeaway is that it is not a good tactic to solely rely on one type of user research to gain data that is truly meaningful. Though each data collected is meaningful in itself, it is not good to rely on just one because there may be times, like for me right now, where one type of data may not connect all the dots that need to be connected in a design process.

Future Applications

Personally, I think observation itself is better suited for smaller groups where I can observe more in depth for one particular situation instead of being bombarded with many things at once. E.g. if a researcher is trying to observe something about classroom behaviors, it might be easier to observe a group of 20~30 students multiple times than a group of 500 students just one time.

In a broader sense, user research can be applied to anything that relates an activity to a user, with a potential of that activity being categorized as a common practice. It can be done with almost anything as long as research is conducted in, and for, the right context. For example, if someone is trying to improve a design for school libraries, they would research around the people who are related to and involved with library buildings and/or systems, but not necessarily the entire school’s population. They could interview the library staff and the students who come to use the library for various reasons. Generally stating, user research can be applied to various types of projects as long it remains relevant to the project.

References:

“User Research Basics.” Usability.gov. Department of Health and Human Services, 08 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2017. <https://www.usability.gov/what-and-why/user-research.html>

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