UX practitioners use research as a tool to help them identify key problems with a product’s usability and find solutions for them. But this only happens when the team knows how to conduct research properly. With so many variables taken into consideration, it might be difficult to get truly valuable insights from the research. This article discusses how to establish an efficient UX research process and translate this research into valuable product design decisions. 

Why, when, and how to apply user research methods

Before a team invests time and effort in user research, they need to understand what goal they want to achieve. Product teams are more likely to make certain user centered design decisions when they know the value of a certain feature or design. Hopefully, it’s easy to demonstrate the value by translating user research findings into product design decisions. Below is a very useful user experience diagram that demonstrates the essential characteristics of any user-centered product design.

Hexagon pattern of facets of the user experience.
Facets of the user experience include useful, usable, desirable, valuable, findable, credible, and accessible characteristics. Image credit Peter Morville.

It’s possible to make a product usable, useful, desirable, valuable, findable, credible, and accessible, but only when you know your users. This happens when you introduce UX research into the design process.

UX research is a broad discipline that has dozens of different methods and techniques. It’s impossible to approach this discipline without a structure in mind. That’s why, even before selecting any user research methods, you need to divide your product design process into the following steps:

  • Discovery
  • Ideation
  • Design
  • Validation

During each step of this process, you should use specific user research techniques. Because each project is different, it’s hard to define universal rules regarding how to use each research method; however, it’s still possible to provide general recommendations based on the type of insights you’re looking to obtain. If you want to introduce UX research into the design process, you should follow the strategy suggested by the Nielson Norman Group (NNGroup):

  1. Discovery. Gather and conduct a field study and user interviews.
  2. Explore. Do task analysis, journey mapping, design reviews, and prototype testing.
  3. Test. Conduct an in-person usability study and accessibility evaluation. 
  4. Listen. Survey customers and users, analyze reviews, and monitor trends/patterns.
This bar chart displays the most-frequent UX research methods.
This bar chart displays the most-frequent UX research methods. Image credit NNGroup.

Translating research into user experience decisions

Prioritize personas

Personas are powerful tools for research findings. Well-designed personas empower designers during the design process and serve as a clear reference for product designers. During user research, UX practitioners can create multiple user personas; however, not all of them are equally important. It’s vital to select a few of the most valuable personas and design products for those top personas. To make a more data-informed decision, you should:

  • Conduct a series of user interviews and field studies with your real or potential users. In many cases, UX practitioners can interview users, either with a questionnaire or moderated interview.
  • Consider segmenting participants based on the tiers they use. For example, if your product has basic and premium tiers, you can group users based on which tier they’re part of. Since each tier offers a different set of features, the experiences of the two groups will be different, creating a need for two separate personas.

It’s also vital to understand that personas are not one-and-done design artifacts; they are living and breathing objects. The initially created personas evolve when placed with a team of like-minded users. Don’t be afraid to update the information about personas along the way. 

Define key scenarios of product interaction

Once you select key personas, you need to understand how they will interact with your product. Think about scenarios more like stories rather than step-by-step actions. Each scenario has a goal that the persona should want to accomplish and describes an in-context interaction (persona’s environment). For example, if you’re working on designing an online store for office supplies, you could define a scenario for a corporate buyer (persona) who needs to replenish sticky notes for the next Monday meeting and is looking for a website that will deliver by that date. It’s possible to make this story more powerful if you add visuals using the techniques of storyboarding. This way of thinking will help you focus on true user needs, not imaginary ones.

Storyboarding uses visuals to describe specific scenarios that create a memorable experience for your team and stakeholders.
Storyboarding uses visuals to describe specific scenarios that create a memorable experience for your team and stakeholders. Image credit NNgroup.

After you define the scenarios of interactions, hunt for data sources to make the scenarios more specific. For example, in our sticky note scenario, pick a budget, based on that research, that the persona is willing to spend on the order. By adding more contextual information, it’s possible to make the story more real.

The easiest way to collect data is to access quantitative data from an analytics tool. At the same time, quantitative data will tell you only a fraction of the information that you need to know about your users. It will tell you what your users do, but it won’t tell you why they do it. You should use both quantitative (numbers) and qualitative (opinions) data sources. Conduct a series of user interviews with real or potential users. Observe people in their environment interacting with a product (this technique is known as contextual inquiries).

Map user journeys

The optimal goal of user experience design is to create workflows that get users to a target state faster. To achieve this goal, product designers need to know what problems users face along the way. User (or customer) journeys are an excellent tool for understanding how your users interact with your product. You can create a user journey map with a collection of tasks that visualizes the process a person goes through to accomplish a goal. By analyzing the user journey, you can find what steps of the journey create friction for your users and you will be able to find optimal design solutions for those steps.

A user journey map typically includes key activities, touchpoints, a persona’s thoughts and feelings, and opportunities.
A user journey map typically includes key activities, touchpoints, a persona’s thoughts and feelings, and opportunities (areas for improvement that you have identified). Image credit infotoday.

A user journey map is also an essential tool for feature prioritization. Maps are helpful during meetings with stakeholders. By showing stakeholders the user journey and highlighting the risky areas (areas with a high risk for losing customers), you can create more chances for stakeholders to give you the green light for finding solutions to the problems. 

Create a concept

After mapping user journeys, you should have a big picture overview of how users will interact with your product. It’s then time to turn these insights into design decisions — using information about personas, journeys, or scenarios to design individual screens and to prioritize the content and features on them. However, don’t forget that every design decision (such as the use of specific design patterns) should be measured according to your target audience.

The Lean Startup movement created the idea of a Minimum Viable Product. According to this idea, the team first needs to validate that they’re solving the right problem for the right audience, in the right market. Only after they accomplish this task will they be able to turn this concept into a viable product.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is about creating meaningful products for your target audience.
Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is about creating meaningful products for your target audience. Image credit brianpagan.

5. Prototype & test

The Build-Measure-Learn cycle is a very effective technique in user research and testing. When you use it in your product design process, you get the confidence that no time is wasted on building the wrong things. Simplicity is what makes this technique great. Follow the approach of creating prototypes and validating them with your target audience. This procedure will help you validate and discard assumptions.

Here are a few simple recommended techniques:

  • Conduct design reviews regularly. Before conducting usability testing sessions with external test participants, discuss your design internally first. An open discussion will help to create an in-person connection between people involved in product design and will ultimately lead to a better product design process.
  • Practice dogfooding. Dogfooding is a technique of testing your own products before sending them to test users. In-house testing will help your team fix significant usability issues and make the product more user-focused.

What if I have limited time for usability testing?

If you have a limited budget or tight time constraints, it is still possible to introduce UX research into the design process. If you can only do one type of usability testing, go for guerrilla testing. This type of testing will help you understand the most common problems that users face when interacting with your prototype/product. By asking users to think while they test your product, you will hear a lot of valuable insights. 

Conclusion

The ultimate goal of your design process is to create human-centered products. It’s possible to achieve this goal when you know who your users are, what they want, and why they want to use the product. By investing time in doing user research and keeping the user’s goals in mind throughout the process, you have a much bigger chance of creating a smooth user journey.