Great User Research (for Non-Researchers) — Part 1

Planning Research

Steve Portigal
User Research Explained
4 min readDec 1, 2020



The demand for User Research exceeds the supply of researchers. And when, ultimately, our goal is “Learning from customers’’ and our user research community is a helping profession, we should be finding ways to empower everyone to do well. This is the first of three connected articles aiming to help overcome territorial and quality concerns within our community. In this first piece, I provide some of the essentials on planning user research for those “other people” wanting to go out and work with users. I also look at Doing Research and Acting on User Research.


While many researchers have some territorial and quality concerns about what happens when “other people” go out and work with users, as a helping profession, we ultimately want to empower everyone to do well. We don’t want to be the User Research Police. The demand for research exceeds the supply of researchers and, besides, there are so many benefits for everyone when research is — as it’s being referred to nowadays — democratized. Kate Towsey, a leader in Research Operations (ResOps), has introduced the idea that we have both “researchers” and “people who do research” or PwDR. I’m writing here about leveling up PwDR.

Ultimately our goal is “Learning from customers” and I encourage you to consider that in a broad sense. Go further than “Is the product we are making usable?” Or “Do people like the thing we are making?” There are many more questions you can ask and many more things you can learn that will inform not only what you build, but everything you do as a business.

We are seeking to deeply understand behavior, needs, meaning, desires — and to not just validate, not just look at the product, and not just look at the solution. And User Research goes far beyond just testing. I talked with a User Experience (UX) manager who was so frustrated by her organization’s eager approach to “test all the things”. For many people, “testing” seems to be their overarching term for user research, as well as a general mindset. Whilst testing is a type of user research, it’s not the only one.

Take some planning time to identify your “business question” — What is your organization’s challenge? Also, make sure you really understand the stakeholders’ perspectives. What assumptions are they making about the problem? What do they think the need is? What do they believe the solution is?

Sometimes I’ll do in-depth research with stakeholders before talking to any customers or users, because there’s so much value in revealing the gaps between what the team believes and what the customers want.

Also, be clear about your “research objective” — what information about them (your users) will help you drive action on that business question? Remember the questions you ask here are different to those specific questions that you’ll ask participants.

You can start with any one of these questions — the business question, the research question, or the participant questions — but whichever one you start out with, make sure to flesh out the other two because they are all interdependent.

There are many user research methods. See “When to Use Which User-Experience Research Methods”, the definitive article by Christian Rohrer ( It’s not an exhaustive list of course, because we make up new methods all the time. Keep in mind that there is a framework for selecting methods, and that your “best” approach is contingent on the “business question” above.

Doing research should be more than looking only at the people who are already using your product. You can do research with one group in order to help you build something for a different group. For example, studying how lead users work with your product will illuminate by contrast how a more typical customer is likely to behave.

Remember that your users are part of a system and even if you aren’t selling to the entire system, those other nodes in that system (i.e. other people) have an impact on what the needs are and what success looks like. A simple example is some research I did to inform a new way of delivering surgical technology to the Operating Room (OR). We talked to surgeons with different specialities, but also OR administration, scrub techs, first assistant nurses, and departments that order and clean supplies, in order to understand the implications of my client’s new design from many different points of view.

Spend Time With People: We do a lot of our everyday work over Hangout and Zoom, so why not do research the same way? It’s less effort, faster and cheaper, but you are missing out on so much. (Yes, we’re in a pandemic at the moment. Hopefully, this isn’t a permanent state of affairs.)

Go Where People Are: You will see things in people’s environment that you won’t see on a computer screen. You will have a rapport with your participant that you can’t achieve mediated through digital bits. And you will be changed by taking the measured risk of leaving your comfort zone, literally, and going into someone else’s space. If you can’t do this with every person, at least try to go out and see some users.

Being intentional about why you are doing research in the first is the best way to make sure that the information you gather is the information you need. In the next two articles, the second on Doing Research and third on Acting on Research, we get into the specifics of doing the research itself.



Steve Portigal
User Research Explained

Author of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries & Interviewing Users ( ), Host @DollrsToDonuts podcast, work at Portigal Consulting