User Research: The Order of Things

A small collection of items that can fit in a pocket, including Notes notebook, pen, Leatherman tool, lighter, and walletMy user experience teams frequently get requests for support in planning and carrying out a special kind of inquiry called user research. This practice encompasses usability and a wide range of other investigatory activities that are all aimed at finding out what will work for the people who will use your system.

How Research Helps

User research is practical, applied work. It takes the tools and methods of investigation common to all scientific disciplines and uses them for concrete purposes. We do user research to make products work better or help teams make better decisions. The goal of user research is to devise ways to gain insights that will help solve design problems. The keys to success are strong research planning, solid execution, and persuasive presentation.

Planning and the Order of Things

When planning user research, we typically first identify a problem. This might be a problem with a service, a product, or a situation. We then articulate the overarching study goal or research question that guides the work, that will get us to an answer which will help us solve the problem. The next step is to decide upon the research methods.

That’s the order. Problem statement, research question, method. To belabor the point, we identify research questions first and figure out a way to answer those questions second. That may sound obvious. Yet in practice clients often ask us to do it the other way. Without having clearly defined their problem, identified their goals, or put into words the questions they need answers to, clients will say: “do an online survey” or “run a usability test.”

Author and researcher Tomer Sharon says: “If you pick a methodology first, something must be wrong.” In our practice, we anticipate the urge to start with a method first, and then help our clients do things in the right order.

Successful user research requires us to understand stakeholders as well as users. Therefore, we work to bring empathy and insight into the conditions and problems faced by our line of business partners and their clients. It’s important to know what’s driving a client to take shortcuts or jump to conclusions. But we also bring to the situation our practiced knowledge of how to do effective user research.

I tell my teams: Be confident in your mastery of the methodology, and keep the dialogue open with your client. This combination lets us help you do things the right way.

originally posted at