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Get started with UX research — A quick how-to guide

Learn how to conduct user observation and interview sessions

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Why conduct research?

UX research is a vital part of the design process. Without conducting and evaluating user research, your product or service is flying blind. Intuition can only get you so far.

This article covers how to think about user research and how to get started with the most impactful forms of research in the early stages of product development.

What is UX research?

User research incorporates both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis.

Different research methods are used at different points in the product development process.

Quantitative research methods include:

  • User analytics
  • Split testing (a/b tests)
  • User surveys
  • Eye-tracking

Qualitative research methods include:

  • User interviews
  • Ethnography
  • Personas
  • Empathy maps

Qualitative research helps explain why users behave a certain way, whereas quantitative research helps explain what they are doing. Both kinds of methods are combined to create a research plan.

Product development usually starts with some form of qualitative research. Understand what prospective users feel and how they act regarding a problem or goal is helpful to conceive a new solution.

Getting started with user observation and interview sessions

Conducting research studies requires that you generally know the type of user you are building for. If your not sure, consider setting up preliminary calls with potential users to narrow it down.

Even before talking to a single person, it’s okay to form hypotheses. I wrote an article on creating hypothesis documents to jumpstart your research.

It’s important to understand that you are not your user. Instead of your personal opinions, determine what users want through a deep understanding of the user’s pain points, goals, and jobs to be done.

The most helpful form of research in the early days of a new product is direct observation and interviews of your targeted users in their natural setting.

Set up research sessions with 5–8 users. This number of sessions is optimal for discovering commonalities and insights before experiencing diminishing returns.

How to begin a research session

I like to begin a session by asking a few open-ended questions, followed by asking them to show me the different actions they take. From there, I ask to observe them working for 30 minutes to an hour. During this time, the user often brings up issues and essential aspects of their daily activities.

During the sessions, extract the goals, needs, behaviors, and pain points you observe. These observations often come in direct quotes, which can be very powerful in understanding the user.

I usually take notes with pen and paper, which I analyze after the session. It’s important to focus on what is being said and did instead of interrupting its occurrence or how you could fix it.

What to look for

Study how users work, what they currently use, and what issues they face. For example, if you’re building an accounting application for CPAs, ask to meet them in their office and make time to observe them work in-between your interview questions.

Keep in mind that your understanding of the user will always be slightly off because of your biases and the tendency for people to change their behavior when observed. You can mitigate this by not recording research sessions and taking notes on paper instead of behind a computer.

No leading questions

Having a participant predict how they would feel, think, or act given a specific circumstance is a poor practice. No matter how obvious, asking a user to project into the future or to tell you exactly what their problems are will usually result in skewed data. Here is an article I wrote on the types of questions you should always avoid.

Embrace silence to yield deep insights. Filling an uncomfortable pause in the conversation is usually poor practice, no matter how awkward. Gaps precede epiphany.

Interpretation is another form of thinking that gets in the way of capturing what’s occurring and can bias the session. Focus on taking notes on exactly what the participant is saying and doing instead of interrupting it. Interpretation should come later in a different setting with your team.

Next steps

In the following article, I’ll cover methods to interpret the notes from your research sessions, including affinity diagramming, user mapping, and persona creation.

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Andrew Coyle

Andrew Coyle

Building @mockvisual (YC S19) • Formerly @Flexport @Google @Intuit • Interested in platforms

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