min read ·
February 8, 2021

Our Survival Guide to User Research

Experience Design

Isabella Greed

A creative who loves making things work. Isabella utilises her skills in analytical thinking, user research and marketing to effectively deliver value to users and organisations.

A guide for preparing, recording, summarising, implementing and presenting User Research.

User Research is one of the most insightful tools in an Experience Designer's toolkit. It makes user-centric design possible; it's the reason behind the rhyme. It's my weapon of choice when advocating for the user; no argument is obsolete when there is evidence to support it. It's my ultimate goal as an Experience Designer that I have research to back up every decision I make. What follows is a guide on how I tackle user research and how I turn it into digestible, actionable insights.

Preparing for research

I usually spend a day or so preparing for any research stage; setting an objective for the analysis and selecting the type of research method to utilise. Setting a goal will help your team understand what the research is trying to achieve and what problems are trying to be solved. It typically describes a list of assumptions and beliefs that require validation. 

Choose a research method in line with this goal. I recommend researching different methods to determine which will best suit the job. When a research method requires interaction with a user, I prepare an interview script or insights template that assists in capturing the correct material.

Introduction script
A snippet of a script prepared for ethnographic research.

Recording the research

Having a standard method for recording data will improve your ability to draw insights from the research. I write comments on a notepad and transfer them onto sticky notes once the research is completed. If the type of research allows, I discretely record observations directly onto sticky notes to speed up the summarising process. Take care with the data you choose to collect and try not to record anything irrelevant, always keeping in mind that you're attempting to validate your assumptions. Note down behavioural patterns you observe and direct quotes that stand out. 

Don't fret if this doesn't come naturally on your first attempt; it takes practice and experience to identify potential behavioural trends. As a general rule of thumb, an event becomes a pattern if you observe it on three different occasions.

Summarising the research 

Turning observations into insights is somewhat of an art. My tool of choice for discovering patterns is Affinity Mapping. I transfer the comments and direct quotes recorded during research onto sticky notes so they’re easy to move around, making it easier to visualise groups of information and identify trends. Grab all of your sticky notes and begin to group them by trends and patterns. Themes will start to emerge, these may resemble strengths, weaknesses, opportunities or threats. Label each group of sticky notes with their corresponding theme without proposing an idea for a solution, it’s important to keep this stage as factual as possible. Try to quantify each theme to help prioritise key pain points and areas of focus.

I like to digitise these groups so they're able to be easily referenced down the line. I'll be writing a post on how I use Trello to organise User Research in the next coming weeks!

summarizing research
Research notes organised using affinity mapping.

Implementing insights of the research

Ideate on solutions for the prioritised themes you identified during summarisation. A solution may take the form of an update to the UI, an optimised user journey or a new product entirely. Treat these solutions as assumptions, prototype them in the design phase and validate them through further user testing. 

Take suggestions from users with a grain of salt. Their solution may sound like an excellent fit for their specific need, but, likely, it doesn't take into account the greater picture.

Presenting research findings 

When stakeholders understand research methods and findings, they're more likely to have respect for the process. I've found that if I explain the research process to the audience at the beginning of a presentation, a sense of credibility accompanies the findings that follow. Once the audience establishes an understanding of the process, present each theme identified in the affinity map along with potential solutions. Include corresponding quotes in a slideshow to help the audience empathise with the users. Allow time for discussion and utilise these conversations to identify business objectives that should be incorporated into design.

A presentation slide explaining the research process.

User Research is about identifying problems and solving them. I find that solving these problems and making someone’s day a little (or a lot) better is the most rewarding part of Experience Design.


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