Supplementing Your User Knowledge with Desk Research

Every UXer has budgets and deadlines to work to, regardless of whether they’re working as part of an internal team or for an external agency. Inevitably, with most projects, the scope of what is ultimately desired compared to what resources are available to achieve it are rarely perfectly aligned. At Pomegranate, when scoping projects, we are often required to come up with trade-offs and find efficiencies wherever possible, all the while focusing on achieving the best possible result with the resources at our disposal.

Desk research

As we wrote in our InvisionApp blog, there are several ways to cut time in the UX process — one of the ways to drive efficiency is through secondary user research.

No design process is complete without gaining a thorough understanding of the users we are designing for and research is a vital part of achieving that process. When budgets and other constraints dictate that we can’t always happily head down the ideal ‘best practice’ research route — we have to think a little differently, because skipping these activities would prove too risky for most projects. So when would you benefit from using lean research methods, such as desk research?

On a small project

Small projects usually don’t have space for extensive research — they often demand a streamlined, agile approach with ROI driven by stakeholders. However, even a couple of hours spent on user research can help balance the scales and better represent the end users

As a freelance UXer

Best practice user research assumes involving the whole team in the process. When working alone, or in separation from the rest of the project team as a consultant, it can be tricky to enforce collaboration. However, companies often reach out to freelancers when they cannot afford the bells and whistles of working with a specialist agency. Finding activities that can be performed in a relatively short amount of time by a freelancer will immediately increase your commercial viability, as you will be able to find the answers you need much faster.

On a private project, on your own budget

When working on a private project or with a startup, every penny is precious, particularly during the initial phases before any investment has been secured. However it’s vital to found the first prototypes of your solution on real customer insights, not assumptions. Apart from talking to your family and friends (we’re assuming that the deadline is not a burning issue here), conducting desk research will help you discover high-level patterns and may help validate some of the initial insights you’ve already gathered.

In a company that is not usually driven by a user-centered design philosophy

When working for a company that doesn’t value user-centricity, it’s extremely difficult to convince your stakeholders that user research is the key. It can often be considered a waste of money or a distraction from your core tasks. However, by opting to employ cheaper research methods with lower impact, you can still win territory step by step and eventually convince everybody that your endeavours were meaningful and commercially viable.

In an era when access to the world’s knowledge resources is commonplace, there are ways to bypass the traditional primary research approach and look for studies that have already been conducted by somebody else (so called secondary research). If you start thinking about how many students major every year in fields such as social sciences or psychology around the world, you can begin to imagine how many valuable papers are sitting, underused, on the world wide web. In 2013, in the US alone, there were 28,462 master’s degrees and 6,496 doctorates awarded in psychology.

What to look for

When undertaking a UX project, the kinds of research information that you need to be looking for include: typical behaviours, psychology of decisions — motivations, needs, doubts etc. Basically anything that will support you in building personas and allow you to empathise with the end-user. What’s more, insights from areas theoretically unrelated to your research problem might actually turn out to be highly informative and shift the way you perceive your audience.

The first step is to search for as many papers as you can, ideally getting closer and closer to your research topic with every refinement of your search query. For every paper you preview, make sure you read the abstract to ensure it’s going to be useful. Depending on your time, you can also decide to look for shorter papers, so that you can at least skim through the majority of its content.

Assuming you don’t have months to allocate to desk research, you can skip reading everything that’s related the methodology — this section is required for peer reviews, but it’s not crucial for you to know the exact methods; it’s the conclusions of the research that you’re after.

When you find a useful statistic, conclusion, even a single sentence that can help you build a better picture of your problem area (e.g. motivations to visit a museum), highlight it. It’s always useful to use qualitative analysis or tagging software, such as Atlas.ti or NVivo. Such software will help you ‘tag’ your content and then consolidate findings labelled with each of your custom tags. To follow our museum example, you can create separate tags (or ‘code’) for motivations, family, barriers, admission fees, location etc. These will help you browse all the information you have on different aspects of your problem area.

After you have gathered these clusters of insights, you can build your experience model using tools such as ecosystem maps, user stories, user personas, empathy maps or mental models. All the information you have should fall into at least one of these documents and help you translate user needs into actionable insights ready for the design process.

Where to look for it?

From research we’ve conducted ourselves into the field of UX design, the papers that prove the most useful are those from fields such as psychology and social sciences. As the areas of human-computer interaction and human factors have continued to thrive over recent years, the number of papers containing highly useful and informative content for web designers is growing exponentially. The information is there and it’s waiting to support you in your design process.

There are a number of sources to look to for knowledge to support your projects. Here are the ones we consider the most useful, however there are thousands of more sources out there, including those specific to the industry or behaviours you’re looking to explore.

    A well-designed resource, and a social platform for researchers, that makes it easy to register (you can do it with LinkedIn or Facebook), publish your own work, track its popularity and collaborate with others.
    Probably the biggest free resource for academic papers, powered by Google’s search engine.
    Over 82 million research papers free to look up. The site was constructed by Bielefeld University Library.
    A great search engine for articles from over 300 open access scientific journals.
    Another open scientific journal resource, however it also includes many eJournals.
    A brilliant resource powered by Microsoft, allowing you to search not only journals and papers, but also conferences and organisations.
    Springer have created a repository of millions of scientific documents from journals, books, series, protocols and reference works.

Even though some of these resources are not free, when compared to the cost of setting up, conducting and analysing research gained through your own interviews or full-scale ethnography study, these resources are true time and budget savers. Whilst we’d all like to have unlimited budgets to conduct the most thorough research possible, in the agile world of UX, even research has to be lean at times too!

If you want to discuss this subject further, contact us here!

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