Do you ever get briefs like, “Could you run a few interviews? Could you conduct a usability test?” Most of us are familiar with such briefs and sometimes executing this brief might work. But sometimes executing such a method-led brief can also lead to unrealistic expectations from the user study, or sub-optimal usage of all the time and resources, poor or no follow-up, and even getting invalid or irrelevant results.
Because these briefs are just methods, and there are hundreds of methods out there (see book reference at the end of the email). Methods alone say nothing about the purpose of the study, and without a purpose, it is difficult to define what success looks like. And if we don’t know what success looks like, it is difficult to succeed, except by chance. What do we do then?
Start with the questions
A quote by Meena Kothandaraman, Experience Strategist at twig+fish could be our inspiration here, she says,
Don’t be led by the method, be led by your questions.
In short, first, discuss and determine the questions your team wants to be answered, prioritize and scope the research needed, then suggest a few methods (s), discuss the pros and cons of these with your team, and based on the stage of your product development, and available resources, determine the most appropriate method.
Just a note, today’s article is a bit longer because it goes over some of the foundations of user research, so you might want to bookmark this one. It ties together the research frameworks, different types of research questions, and the methods you could use to answer some questions (or in specific research phases).
Research frameworks and how they can help structure and prioritize questions
If there are too many questions your team wants to be answered, you’d probably need some structure for prioritization. Research frameworks can help here because they help structure our questions and guide the selection of appropriate approaches.
There are several research frameworks, for example, Nielsen Norman Group and Erika Hall provide a landscape of different research methods and the kind of questions they help answer. There are also a few frameworks that present the different phases of research and related activities. These include gov.uk, the Ncredible framework by twig + fish and the research funnel by Emma Boulton. Any of these frameworks is a good starting point.
Using the NCredible framework as an example
Let’s work with the NCredible framework as an example. Once you and your team have your questions outlined, plot them within different quadrants of the Ncredible matrix (photo at the top).
There are four quadrants: Discover, Explore/Elaborate, Design, Validate. Let’s look at them one by one.
Some commonly used methods here can be interviews, observations, diary studies and probes, ethnography, artifact analysis, etc.
Methods and an example
Some commonly used methods here can be interviews, observations, diary studies, contextual inquiry, experience sampling, cultural probes. And different stimuli like storyboards, design probes, etc. might already start being used from here on.
Here’s an example of an exploratory/elaboration study for an e-commerce store on what people do when buying, along with their wants, needs, likes, and pain-points, etc. in the purchasing process. We used diary studies and interviews to answer these questions.
Methods and an example
Some commonly used approaches here are: co-creation workshops, concept evaluations, co-discovery, home trials, competitive analysis, card-sorting, tree testing, wizard of oz approach, etc.
Here’s an example where we created several game concepts for children and wanted to narrow down the list to a few concepts to be refined.
Methods and an example
Usability testing with prototypes of varying fidelity (moderated or unmoderated), A/B testing, data analytics, home trials, etc. are commonly used approaches here.
Also, here is an article summarizing different methods to evaluate the content and copy of the interface.
Many more methods
Only a few methods are listed above, but user research has hundreds of methods from all the fields that contribute to it (design, ethnography, engineering, HCI, human factors, psychology, marketing…) and the list grows every year.
To get inspiration on new methods, a reference book like the pocket version of The Universal Methods of Design can be very useful. It shows 100 different design and research approaches, though they don’t seem to distinguish between design method, research method, analysis, and presentation, etc.
Phew! This was all for today. Thank you for reading.