Before embarking upon the design phase of any project, it’s critical to undertake some research so that the decisions you make are undertaken from an informed position. In part one of this article series, I’ll be focusing on the importance of undertaking user research.

Your job title might not be “design researcher,” but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, at the very least, inform yourself of your users and their needs by undertaking at least some initial scoping research before you embark upon a project. User research should be a core part of every designer’s activity and, reflecting this fact, we’ve seen a growing focus on the importance of user research over time as our discipline has matured.

It’s critical to the success of any project — be it for an external client, for an internal project, or a new product you’re building — to adopt a user-first approach that positions the people that use what we build front and center.

In this article, I’ll introduce a cross-section of research methods that will help designers to both: design new products and, as will often be the case, redesign existing products. Whether you’re designing for external clients, working as part of an in-house team, or building a digital product, user research is critical.

As you build your UX toolbox, it’s essential to equip yourself with the research tools you need to design great user experiences effectively. I’ll provide these in a section that explores the research landscape and, in part two of this series, I’ll dive deeper into the details.

User-centered design requires user research

As this section’s title summarizes, user-centered design requires user research. It’s impossible to design effective and memorable user experiences if you haven’t placed your users right at the heart of your design process.

When embarking upon the design process — indeed, as you’re framing the problem you’re trying to solve — it’s important to ask:

  • What do your users want to get done?
  • What are their goals?
  • What are they trying to achieve?

Your user research should give you some insight into the answers to these questions. It should also be one of the first things you focus on. In short, it’s critical to undertake user research right at the beginning of the project. This helps to define the scope of the project (what exactly it is you’re doing) and the goal (what the intention is). Start with the goal, clearly defined, and work back from that.

Great products enable customers to get jobs done — your role as a designer is to define those jobs, then design for them. In short, spend some time with your users, getting to know their needs, and what it is they are trying to achieve — these are their “jobs to be done.”

If the phrase “jobs to be done” is new to you, it’s well worth becoming better acquainted with it. I’d highly recommend bookmarking Alan Klement’s excellent Jobs to be Done website, which dives a little deeper on the subject. The team at Intercom, an excellent product, have also written a book on the topic, Intercom on Jobs to be Done.

It’s critical to focus on users first, or you’re in danger of designing based on your assumptions, which often aren’t necessarily correct. Instead of beginning with assumptions, begin with user research. Define the problem you’re trying to solve, build a prototype, test your assumptions, and iterate.

Research should be an ongoing process — it’s rarely, if ever, finished — it’s returned to repeatedly throughout the process. Ideally, you should adopt an iterative approach towards your design:

  • Research
  • Design
  • Prototype
  • Build
  • Test

It’s important to stress that this process is a loop that we run through repeatedly. By undertaking user research, we can frame a problem, design, prototype, build it, and finally, return to our users to test our assumptions.

 Circular process diagram showing research, design, prototype, build, test
Research is just one part of a cyclical design process. It should be undertaken throughout the design process and used to challenge assumptions.

Looping iteratively through this process leads to better results as user feedback shapes user experience. When something is built — even at a functional prototype stage, using a tool like Adobe XD — it’s important to test it. The best approach is a lean approach — move quickly and design effectively by creating a minimum viable product (MVP), testing it, and iterating.

You can learn a lot through observation, watching how your users interact with your prototypes. As Yogi Berra puts it, in characteristic style, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

In short, it’s critical not to get lost designing in a vacuum — isolated from users — as such it’s important to get out of the studio and meet users. Design without users in mind isn’t design. It can also lead to mistakes that are expensive to fix later.

It’s a mistake to think, “We can’t afford user research.” This last point is critical. It’s better to undertake some research than no research.

The research landscape

There are a wealth of tools we can use as designers to inform our research and, as your experience of user research widens, you’ll develop the experience to know when to use which tool. As we’ll see shortly, when we explore analyzing research data, it’s important to use a mix of research methods to ensure your findings are grounded and informed from a variety of perspectives.

There are many tools and — unless you’re a bona fide design researcher — it’s impossible to be fluent in all of them. It is, however, important to start to build a research toolbox, adding methods as your knowledge expands. We can think of the research landscape as one with two axes:

  • Qualitative and quantitative.
  • Behavioral and attitudinal.

On one axis we have qualitative approaches, exploring opinions, and testing opinions by exploring data. On the second axis we have behavioral approaches — observing users, watching what they do — and attitudinal approaches — listening to users, exploring their attitudes and opinions.

 2x2 quadrant showing Qualitative and Quantitative on x-axis and Behavioral and Attitudinal on y-axis
There is a wide range of research methods at our disposal. It’s important to ensure you’ve chosen a range of methods so that your research is well-rounded.

Before I introduce some qualitative and quantitative research methods, it’s important to stress that who you test is important. Testing your designs on your studio mates won’t cut the mustard — it’s important to work with real-life humans outside of your building, preferably real-life humans that echo the users you are designing for.

When undertaking qualitative research — where you are working more closely with research participants — it’s important to put some thought into finding the right kind of people. If you’re designing a project for the elderly, for example, it’s essential to establish a panel of research participants that fit the profile of who you are designing for.

It’s critical to find the right kind of people, and building a screening document for candidates is one way of doing this. Essentially a screening document lists the characteristics of the users you’re designing for. For example, whether they’re male or female, aged 65+, computer literate, travel regularly, and so on.

The bottom line? It’s important to select your research participants with care. They will shape your research findings considerably, so it’s essential to put some work into this part of the process.

Now that we’ve discussed the importance of UX research, let’s looks at each method of research in the Comprehensive Guide to User Experience (UX) Research – Part 2.