What is user research? UX Question #3

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Julie from Toronto, Ontario, Canada asks: What is user research?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Julie. This is UX Question number 3 and I am Ben Judy.

What is user research? Well, it’s studying and learning about people who use a product in order to make human-centered design decisions.

Some popular user research methods include: surveys, interviews, direct observation (just watching people do stuff), diary studies, focus groups, analyzing data from software analytics that tracks how people interact with a website or an app—these are some basic research methods. And there are more esoteric ones like tree testing, card sorting, and so on. If you’ve heard of any of these things, you know these are just means of learning about people and their behaviors and attitudes.

But there are a few interesting aspects of user research I’d like to call out.

First, the reason you’re doing these user research activities is to inform and support UX design. You can go back to question two and listen to me answer the question, What is UX design? You don’t do user research for the fun of it. It’s in support of a design process, to make better informed design decisions.

Another aspect of user research is that the data you collect can either be qualitative or quantitative, or some mix of the two. Any good user researcher will know their way around gathering and synthesizing numerical data—stuff you can quantify—and mushy, fuzzy, human qualitative insights. And user research involves knowing when to lean one way or the other, qual or quant.

Another dichotomy in user research is attitudes and behaviors. In answering question 1, what is user experience, I said, there are two important aspects of UX: subjectively, how the user feels about the experience with the product, and objectively the usability—does it work for the user? So in user research you set out to discover what are the attitudes and feelings, and what are the behaviors, what people observably do.

When I worked in UX at Intuit, we were trained to look for the Aha! moments. To find surprising insights about users that would shift our product strategy. Verifying what you already believe is fine but surprise is better.

So that’s user research: gather qualitative and quantitative data, study how people feel and what they do in order to make human-centered design decisions about the product design.

And you summarize what you learned from the research, create a tidy little presentation you’re really proud of, and watch it get completely ignored by business leaders who are only focused on profit. Every time.

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