Getting started with UX Research- for real this time

Part 1

After dipping my toe into the water by looking into and reverse engineering my alarm app, talking to a couple of acquaintances and getting familiar with the process, I got to the point of the learning process when things actually got real!

Looking back to when started learning UX by myself before Mento Design Academy was born, and building my first app in Figma (with absolutely no process behind), I was under the impression that I already know a thing or two about UX design. I jumped right into the UI part — research sounded like something to be done way down the road, when you work for a company or you are working on a super complex start-up project.

As I envisioned it then, research was happening in a room full of people, all armed with sticky notes and markers, or maybe with a semi-anxious user trying to use a prototype under a device that resembled some sort of camera. Hearing words like focus groups, research labs, usability, qualitative vs. quantitative, they all seamed reserved for the research experts, definitely not for me, at least not at this stage in my learning process. But as it turned out, be careful what you wish for!

Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

I chose the problem space I would like to look into, so what were the next steps? I was ready to jump into Figma and start sketching the next big thing. Also, before sketching I took a look on Dribble for some inspiring apps in the same space, you never know where the next idea might come from when you don't expect. After being done with this, I also wanted to see how my users might react, so I’ve compiled a survey and sent it in my groups of friend. I invited for a coffee the ones I knew were passionate about the topic, they should have the most insights. As soon as I got some results, it was amazing to see how people were excited about the solution, it felt like I was definitely on the right track.

Something sounds fishy, right? If you find yourself frowning upon what I wrote and noticed at least 5 things wrong with my previous paragraph, then you really know a thing or two about UX research.

Let me explain. While of course research steps and methodologies will differ from project to project, stage and time, those are te steps I took for my first one.

So, what’s wrong with what I wrote before? For real this time, let`s take them one by one.

“I chose the problem space I would like to look into, what are the next steps? I̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶d̶y̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶j̶u̶m̶p̶ ̶i̶n̶t̶o̶ ̶F̶i̶g̶m̶a̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶s̶t̶a̶r̶t̶ ̶s̶k̶e̶t̶c̶h̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶n̶e̶x̶t̶ ̶b̶i̶g̶ ̶t̶h̶i̶n̶g̶.̶”

I may have chosen my problem space, but that is really broad. Could I be the only one in the world who thought about that problem and (secretly) on how to fix it? There is a (very) high chance that is not true. So first things first, leaving Figma aside for now, I started looking into what others think about this. Are there any studies that might relate to my problem? Any data I should know? Furthermore, did anyone already solve this problem in some way or another?

Imagine working on the next app to revolutionize your spending reports, only to find out about Revolut while pitching the idea to your friends.

So after getting lost on the web for a while, I ended up with what resembled a doctoral thesis draft on the area I explored, and most importantly, with a much clearer vision about the problem space.

So, a better version to start with, but we are not done:

“I chose the problem space I would like to look into, so what were the next steps? I was ready to understand more about the problem and how others might have solved this in the past, so I did my secondary research and looked at competition. A̶l̶s̶o̶,̶ ̶b̶e̶f̶o̶r̶e̶ ̶s̶k̶e̶t̶c̶h̶i̶n̶g̶,̶ ̶I̶ ̶t̶o̶o̶k̶ ̶a̶ ̶l̶o̶o̶k̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶D̶r̶i̶b̶b̶l̶e̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶s̶o̶m̶e̶ ̶i̶n̶s̶p̶i̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶a̶p̶p̶s̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶s̶a̶m̶e̶ ̶s̶p̶a̶c̶e̶,̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶n̶e̶v̶e̶r̶ ̶k̶n̶o̶w̶ ̶w̶h̶e̶r̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶n̶e̶x̶t̶ ̶i̶d̶e̶a̶ ̶m̶i̶g̶h̶t̶ ̶c̶o̶m̶e̶ ̶f̶r̶o̶m̶ ̶w̶h̶e̶n̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶d̶o̶n̶`̶t̶ ̶e̶x̶p̶e̶c̶t̶.̶”

Our brain is wired to jump to a solution as quickly as possible, and if it’s a pretty cool one, even better. Do you remember my newly written doctoral thesis I mentioned earlier? Let’s pause for a moment and make some sense out of it. By this point, you should have clarified a couple of aspects, others might have been clear to you from the start, based on personal experience, knowledge or existing research. But what are the things you don’t know? Wait, what? How can you know what you don’t know?

Similar to going on Google and typing something in the search engine, you might want to go to your users knowing what you want to search for. Like searching on Google, you might not know exactly how to phrase it in the beginning, but you know what you are looking for. You wouldn`t type “rental apartments” on Google if you were searching for a new car.

So before going forward, it`s good to take a moment to structure your thoughts and knowledge. Think what is clear for you, what you can vouch for and what you would like to know. What questions do you have? Who might be able to answer these questions for you? The users? They might be able to tell you about their experience, but might not know rules, numbers or theories on the topic, they will just share their story. Who might be able though to help you with this? Any experts you would like to ask? Any other stakeholders?

Or do you want to end up with something like below?

Of course, defining a research problem statement can also happen before you look at the competition, or do some desk research, can probably happen in parallel, it`s up to you and depends on the project. But for sure, understanding what you want to actually learn and discover will be of great help, if done early in the process.

So, what I really did next:

I chose the problem space I would like to look into, so what were the next steps? I was ready to understand more about the problem and how others might have solved this in the past, so I did my secondary research and looked at competition. I also structured my knowledge, decided what I want to learn more about and who could help me with each of my questions. I now have a Research problem statement, I know exactly where I'm going. A̶f̶t̶e̶r̶ ̶b̶e̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶d̶o̶n̶e̶ ̶w̶i̶t̶h̶ ̶t̶h̶i̶s̶,̶ ̶I̶ ̶a̶l̶s̶o̶ ̶w̶a̶n̶t̶e̶d̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶s̶e̶e̶ ̶h̶o̶w̶ ̶m̶y̶ ̶u̶s̶e̶r̶s̶ ̶m̶i̶g̶h̶t̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶c̶t̶ ̶,̶ ̶s̶o̶ ̶I̶`̶v̶e̶ ̶c̶o̶m̶p̶i̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶ ̶s̶u̶r̶v̶e̶y̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶s̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶m̶y̶ ̶g̶r̶o̶u̶p̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶f̶r̶i̶e̶n̶d̶s̶.̶

Yes, now we will also talk to our users. It would be important to reach out to the right ones. Your friends, although cool, might not be in the target. They might also be biased to help you, involuntarily of course. So it’s better to have a reduced level of familiarity with your users, but also, the right ones. That seems a bit challenging, right? Especially in the beginning. I don’t know these people, how do I know they are right for me?

One thing that helped me a lot was using a Screener survey. Although it’s called a survey, think about it more like a filter, an instrument to put you a bit in control of the unknown. To help you make sure you are talking to the right people , the ones who actually have something to share with you regarding the problem space you are exploring. You wouldn’t be talking about how to repair an engine with a philosopher.

There is a lot to say about screeners and their power, but I will talk about it in another article. But the main idea is this: when you do reach out to your users, make sure you reach out to the right ones, to the ones what are willing to speak to you.

I chose the problem space I would like to look into, so what were the next steps? I was ready to understand more about the problem space and how others might have solved this problem, so I did my secondary research and looked at competition. I also structured my knowledge, decided what I want to learn more about and who could help me with each of my questions. I now have a Research problem statement, I know exactly where I`m going. I also have a clear picture now on who my target users are and I am ready to talk to them. I̶ ̶i̶n̶v̶i̶t̶e̶d̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶a̶ ̶c̶o̶f̶f̶e̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶o̶n̶e̶s̶ ̶I̶ ̶k̶n̶e̶w̶ ̶w̶e̶r̶e̶ ̶p̶a̶s̶s̶i̶o̶n̶a̶t̶e̶ ̶a̶b̶o̶u̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶p̶i̶c̶,̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶y̶ ̶s̶h̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶h̶a̶v̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶m̶o̶s̶t̶ ̶i̶n̶s̶i̶g̶h̶t̶s̶.̶

After I started sending out my screen survey, I kind of lost faith in humanity for a bit there, after receiving my first results. People were filling it in, although not in an impressive number, but they were really not keen on talking to me.

I know this is overused, but couldn`t help it.

If you don’t have a data base of users already, this will happen to you, especially when you are just starting, like me. The secret is to keep at it, search consistently, keep looking for your users, I promise the right people will come to you. You will know it when you see their answers. I was jumping with joy whenever I found a participant who met all the requirements and was keen on sharing their experience.

I was lucky enough to have a great first interview, even though that might not always be the case. My interviewee was a great storyteller. If the first discussion is great, use this momentum, this newly acquired confidence and energy, if not, see what you could do better: look at the way you are asking questions, take a look at your screener again, look at your body language, expressions. There is an advantage in every type of interview: learning opportunity or confidence, you cannot lose either way.

If the right users will take a while to come to you, don’t fall into the trap of reaching out to friends instead. It might be tempting to just go back to your comfort zone and feel that you are making progress with your research. When I did my first interviews, I picked my phone dozens of times, scrolled through my Instagram and WhatsApp, opened the message window for a few people, then closed it back. If you were wondering what was going on in my mind, it might have been something along the lines of: “Hey, I know this guy from my previous work, he was super friendly and smart, for sure he will be able to jump on a call and give me some insights. After all, he surely has visited at least one museum.” And I am so glad I didn’t do that. The discussions you will have with people you haven’t talked before is amazing, I was surprised at every turn to have my expectations shaken up, re-wrapped, discovering insights I couldn’t have imagined. Not to mention, talking to strangers is an extremely powerful communication exercise.

There is a lot to tell about user interviews, which I cannot cover here or you will just end up abandoning this article or realize it’s already a different season by the time you finish it. But I will talk more about them in part 2!

Well, we talked to our users and got our first insights. We’ve heard a lot of insights, pain points, frustrations, stories, so we might already be thinking about something that would solve all of those problems. Our mind still can’t resist the urge to find a solution.

However, we worked so good until now, why ruin it now? It’s time to look at what we gathered so far, make some sense out of it. But I will talk about this in my next chapters.

Until then, here`s how our UX Research story looks so far:

I chose the problem space I would like to look into, so what were the next steps? I was ready to understand more about the problem and how others might have solved this in the past, so I did my secondary research and looked at competition. I also structured my knowledge, decided what I want to learn more about and who could help me with each of my questions. I now have a Research problem statement, I know exactly where I’m going. I also have a clear picture now on who my target users are and I am ready to talk to them. I have gathered a lot of interesting insights into their behaviors, preferences or pain points. Now it’s time to dive into them…

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Raluca Maria Angelescu

Raluca Maria Angelescu

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UX/UI Designer .Everyone deserves a better designed world! Starting with the morning coffee cup and all the way through digital interfaces.