How to conduct user research: A step-by-step guide

How to conduct user research - step by step guide

What user research did you conduct to reveal your ideal user?

Uh-oh. Not this question again. We both know the most common answer and it’s not great.

“Uhm, we talked to some users and had a brainstorming session with our team. It’s not much, but we don’t have time to do anything more right now. It’s better than nothing.”

Let’s be brutally honest about the meaning of that answer and rephrase it:

We don’t have time to get to know our actual user and maximize our chances of success. We’ll just assume that we know what they want and then wonder why the product fails at a later stage.”

If that sounds super bad, it’s because IT IS. You don’t want to end up in this situation. And you won’t.

After reading this guide, you’ll know exactly how to carry out the user research that will become your guiding star during product development.

But first…

Why is user research so important?

Step #1: Define research objectives

Go ahead – create that fake persona

Step #2: Pick your methods

Qualitative methods – the WHY

Quantitative methods – the WHAT

Behavioral and attitudinal methods

Step #3: Find your participants

How to recruit participants

How many participants?

Step #4: Conduct user research

Interviews

Surveys

Focus groups

Competitive analysis

Field studies

Personas

What’s next?

Why is user research so important?

Look, I know ‘research’ can be a scary word. It may sound like money you don’t have, time you can’t spare, and expertise you need to find. That’s why some people convince themselves that it’s not that important.

Which is a HUGE mistake.

User research is crucial – without it, you’ll spend your energy, time and money on a product that is based around false assumptions that won’t work in the real world.

Let’s take a look at Segway, a technologically brilliant product with incredible introductory publicity. Although it’s still around, it simply didn’t reach initial expectations. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • It brought mockery, not admiration. The user was always “that guy”, who often felt fat or lazy.
  • Cities were not prepared for it. Neither users nor policemen knew if it should be used on the road or on the sidewalk.
  • A large segment of the target market comprised of postal and security workers. However, postal workers need both hands while walking, and security workers prefer bikes that don’t have a limited range.

Segway mainly fell short because of issues that could’ve been foreseen and solved by better user research.

Tim Brown, the CEO of the innovation and design firm IDEO, sums it up nicely:

“Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task.”

Never forget – you are not your user.

You require proper user research to understand your user’s problems, pain points, needs, desires, feelings and behaviours.

Let’s start with the process!

Step #1: Define research objectives

Before you get in touch with your target users, you need to define why you are doing the research in the first place. 

Establish clear objectives and agree with your team on your exact goals – this will make it much easier to gain valuable insights. Otherwise, your findings will be all over the place.

Here are some sample questions that will help you to define your objectives:

  • What do you want to uncover?
  • What are the knowledge gaps that you need to fill?
  • What is already working and what isn’t?
  • Is there a problem that needs to be fixed? What is that problem?
  • What will the research bring to the business and/or your customers?

Once you start answering questions like these, it’s time to make a list of objectives. These should be specific and concise.

Let’s say you are making a travel recommendation app. Your research goals could be:

  • Understand the end-to-end process of how participants are currently making travel decisions.
  • Uncover the different tools that participants are using to make travel decisions.
  • Identify problems or barriers that they encounter when making travel decisions.

I suggest that you prioritize your objectives and create an Excel table. It will come in handy later.

Go ahead, create that fake persona

A useful exercise for you to do at this stage is to write down some hypotheses about your target users.

Ask yourself:

What do we think we understand about our users that is relevant to our business or product?

Yes, brainstorm the heck out of this persona, but keep it relevant to the topic at hand.

Here’s my empathy map and empathy map canvas to really help you flesh out your imaginary user.

Once you’re finished, research any and every statement, need and desire with real people.

It’s a simple yet effective way to create questions for some of the research methods that you’ll be using.

However, you need to be prepared to throw some of your assumptions out of the window. If you think this persona may affect your bias, don’t bother with hypotheses and dive straight into research with a completely open mind.

Step #2: Pick your methods

Alright, you have your research goals. Now let’s see how you can reach them.

Here’s the main question you should be asking yourself at this step in the process:

Based on our time and manpower, what methods should we select?

It’s essential to pick the right method at the right time. I’ll delve into more details on specific methods in Step #4. For now, let’s take a quick look at what categories you can choose from.

Qualitative methods – the WHY

Qualitative research tells you ‘why’ something occurs. It tells you the reasons behind the behavior, the problem or the desire. It answers questions like: Why do you prefer using app X instead of other similar apps?” or “What’s the hardest part about being a sales manager? Why?”.

Qualitative data comes in the form of actual insights and it’s fairly easy to understand.

Most of the methods we’ll look at in Step #4 are qualitative methods.

Quantitative methods – the WHAT

Quantitative research helps you to understand what is happening by providing different metrics.

It answers questions such as “What percentage of users left their shopping cart without completing the purchase?” or “Is it better to have a big or small subscription button?”.

Most quantitative methods come in handy when testing your product, but not so much when you’re researching your users. This is because they don’t tell you why particular trends or patterns occur.

Behavioral and attitudinal methods

There is a big difference between “what people do” and “what people say”.

As their names imply, attitudinal research is used to understand or measure attitudes and beliefs, whereas behavioral research is used to measure and observe behaviors.

Here’s a practical landscape that will help you choose the best methods for you. If it doesn’t make sense now, return to it once you’ve finished the guide and you’ll have a much better understanding.

Source: Nielsen Norman Group

I’ll give you my own suggestions and tips about the most common and useful methods in Step #4 – Conducting research.

In general, if your objectives are specific enough, it shouldn’t be too hard to see which methods will help you achieve them.

Remember that Excel table? Choose a method or two that will fulfill each objective and type it in the column beside it.

It won’t always be possible to carry out everything you’ve written down. If this is the case, go with the method(s) that will give you most of the answers. With your table, it will be easy to pick and choose the most effective options for you.

Onto the next step!

Step #3: Find your participants

This stage is all about channeling your inner Sherlock and finding the people with the secret intel for your product’s success.

Consider your niche, your objectives and your methods – this should give you a general idea of the group or groups you want to talk to and research further.

Here’s my advice for most cases.

If you’re building something from the ground up, the best participants might be:

  • People you assume face the problem that your product aims to solve
  • Your competitors’ customers

If you are developing something or solving a problem for an existing product, you should also take a look at:

  • Advocates and super-users
  • Customers who have recently churned
  • Users who tried to sign up or buy but decided not to commit

How to recruit participants

There are plenty of ways to bring on participants, and you can get creative so long as you keep your desired target group in mind.

You can recruit them online – via social media, online forums or niche community sites.

You can publish an ad with requirements and offer some kind of incentive.

You can always use a recruitment agency, too. This can be costly, but it’s also efficient.

If you have a user database and are changing or improving your product, you can find your participants in there. Make sure that you contact plenty of your existing users, as most of them won’t respond.

You can even ask your friends to recommend the right kind of people who you wouldn’t otherwise know.

With that said, you should always be wary of including friends in your research. Sure, they’re the easiest people to reach, but your friendship can (and probably will) get in the way of obtaining honest answers. There are plenty of horror stories about people validating their “brilliant” ideas with their friends, only to lose a fortune in the future. Only consider them if you are 100% sure that they will speak their mind no matter what.

Design Strategy How many participants icon?

How many participants?

That depends on the method. If you’re not holding a massive online survey, you can usually start with 5 people in each segment. That’s enough to get the most important unique insights. You can then assess the situation and decide whether or not you need to expand your research.

Step #4: Conduct user research

Finally! Let’s go through some of the more common methods you’ll be using, including their pros and cons, some pro tips, and when you should use them.

Interviews icon

Interviews

Pros:

Engaging in one-on-one discussions with users enables you to acquire detailed information about a user’s attitudes, desires, and experiences. Individual concerns and misunderstandings can be directly addressed and cleared up on the spot.

Cons:

Interviews are time-consuming, especially on a per participant basis. You have to prepare for them, conduct them, analyze them and sometimes even transcribe them. They also limit your sample size, which can be problematic. The quality of your data will depend on the ability of your interviewer, and hiring an expert can be expensive.

Tips:

  1. Prepare questions that stick to your main topics. Include follow-up questions for when you want to dig deeper into certain areas.
  2. Record the interview. Don’t rely on your notes. You don’t want to interrupt the flow of the interview by furiously scribbling down your answers, and you’ll need the recording for any potential in-depth analysis later on.
  3. Conduct at least one trial run of the interview to see if everything flows and feels right. Create a “playbook” on how the interview should move along and update it with your findings.
  4. If you are not comfortable with interviewing people, let someone else do it or hire an expert interviewer. You want to make people feel like they are talking to someone they know, rather than actually being interviewed. In my experience, psychologists are a great choice for an interviewer.

When:

Interviews are not really time-sensitive, as long as you do them before the development process.

However, they can be a great supplement to online surveys and vice-versa. Conducting an interview beforehand helps you to create a more focused and relevant survey, while conducting an interview afterwards helps you to explain the survey answers.

Design Strategy Surveys icon

Surveys

Pros:

Surveys are generally conducted online, which means that it’s possible to gather a lot of data in a very short time for a very low price. Surveys are usually anonymous, so users are often more honest in their responses.

Cons:

It’s more difficult to get a representative sample because it’s tough to control who takes part in the survey – especially if you post it across social media channels or general forums. Surveys are quite rigid and if you don’t account for all possible answers, you might be missing out on valuable data. You have to be very careful when choosing your questions – poorly worded or leading ones can negatively influence how users respond. Length can also be an issue, as many people hate taking long surveys.

Tips:

  1. Keep your surveys brief, particularly if participants won’t be compensated for their time. Only focus on what is truly important.
  2. Make sure that the questions can be easily understood. Unclear or ambiguous questions result in data on which you can’t depend. Keep the wording as simple as possible.
  3. Avoid using leading questions. Don’t ask questions that assume something, such as “What do you dislike about X?”. Replace this with “What’s your experience with X?”.
  4. Find engaged, niche online communities that fit your user profile. You’ll get more relevant data from these.

When:

Similar to interviews. It depends on whether you want to use the survey as a preliminary method, or if you want a lot of answers to a few, very focused questions.

Design Strategy Focus groups icon

Focus Groups

Focus groups are moderated discussions with around 5 to 10 participants, the intention of which is to gain insight into the individuals’ attitudes, ideas and desires.

Pros:

As focus groups include multiple people, they can quickly reveal the desires, experiences, and attitudes of your target audience. They are helpful when you require a lot of specific information in a short amount of time. When conducted correctly, they can act like interviews on steroids.

Cons:

Focus groups can be tough to schedule and manage. If the moderator isn’t experienced, the discussion can quickly go off-topic. There might be an alpha participant that dictates the general opinion, and because it’s not one-on-one, people won’t always speak their mind.

Tips:

  1. Find an experienced moderator who will lead the discussion. Having another person observing and taking notes is also highly recommended, as he or she can emphasize actionable insights and catch non-verbal clues that would otherwise be missed.
  2. Define the scope of your research. What questions will you ask? How in-depth do you want to go with the answers? How long do you want each discussion to last? This will determine how many people and groups should be tested.
  3. If possible, recruit potential or existing users who are likely to provide good feedback, yet will still allow others to speak their mind. You won’t know the participants most of the time, so having an experienced moderator is crucial.

When

Focus groups work best when you have a few clear topics that you want to focus on.

Competitive Analysis

Pros:

A competitive analysis highlights the strengths and weaknesses of existing products. It explores how successful competitors act on the market. It gives you a solid basis for other user research methods and can also uncover business opportunities. It helps you to define your competitive advantage, as well as identify different user types.

Cons:

A competitive analysis can tell you what exists, but not why it exists. You may collect a long feature list, but you won’t know which features are valued most by users and which they don’t use at all. In many cases, it’s impossible to tell how well a product is doing, which makes the data less useful. It also has limited use if you’re creating something that’s relatively new to the market.

Tips:

  1. Create a list or table of information that you want to gather – market share, prices, features, visual design language, content, etc.
  2. Don’t let it go stale. Update it as the market changes so that you include new competitors.
  3. If you find something really interesting but don’t know the reason behind it, conduct research among your competitor’s users.
  4. After concluding your initial user research, go over the findings of your competitive analysis to see if you’ve discovered anything that’s missing on the market.

When:

It can be a great first method, especially if you’re likely to talk to users of your competitors’ products

Field Studies

Field studies are research activities that take place in the user’s context, rather than at your company or office. Some are purely observational (the researcher is a “fly on the wall”), others are field interviews, and some act as a demonstration of pain points in existing systems.

Pros:

You really get to see the big picture –  field studies allow you to gain insights that will fundamentally change your product design. You see what people actually do instead of what they say they do. A field study can explain problems and behaviours that you don’t understand better than any other method.

Cons:

It’s the most time-consuming and expensive method. The results rely on the observer more than any of the other options. It’s not appropriate for products that are used in rare and specific situations.

Tips:

  1. Establish clear objectives. Always remember why you are doing the research. Field studies can provide a variety of insights and sometimes it can be hard to stay focused. This is especially true if you are participating in the observed activity.
  2. Be patient. Observation might take some time. If you rush, you might end up with biased results.
  3. Keep an open mind and don’t ask leading questions. Be prepared to abandon your preconceptions, assumptions and beliefs. When interviewing people, try to leave any predispositions or biases at the door.
  4. Be warm but professional. If you conduct interviews or participate in an activity, you won’t want people around you to feel awkward or tense. Instead, you’ll want to observe how they act naturally.

When:

Use a field study when no other method will do or if it becomes clear that you don’t really understand your user. If needed, you should conduct this as soon as possible – it can lead to monumental changes.

Personas

We started with a user persona and we’ll finish on this topic, too. But yours will be backed by research 😉

Pros:

A persona outlines your ideal user in a concise and understandable way. It includes the most important insights that you’ve discovered. It makes it easier to design products around your actual users and speak their language. It’s a great way to familiarize new people on your team with your target market.

Cons:

A persona is only as good as the user research behind it. Many companies create a “should be” persona instead of an actual one. Not only can such a persona be useless, it can also be misleading.

Tips:

  1. Keep personas brief. Avoid adding unnecessary details and omit information that does not aid your decision making. If a persona document is too long, it simply won’t be used.
  2. Make personas specific and realistic. Avoid exaggerating and include enough detail to help you find real people that represent your ideal user.

When:

Create these after you’ve carried out all of the initial user research. Compile your findings and create a persona that will guide your development process.

What’s next?

Now you know who you are creating your product for – you’ve identified their problems, needs and desires. You’ve laid the groundwork, so now it’s time to design a product that will blow your target user away! But that’s a topic for a whole separate guide, one that will take you through the process of product development and testing 😉

PS. Don’t forget -> Here is your 📝User Research Checklist and comparison table

About the author

Oh hey, I’m Romina Kavcic

I am a Design Strategist who holds a Master of Business Administration. I have 14+ years of career experience in design work and consulting across both tech startups and several marquee tech unicorns such as Stellar.org, Outfit7, Databox, Xamarin, Chipolo, Singularity.NET, etc. I currently advise, coach and consult with companies on design strategy & management, visual design and user experience. My work has been published on Forbes, Hackernoon, Blockgeeks, Newsbtc, Bizjournals, and featured on Apple iTunes Store.

More about me Let’s connect on Linkedin  *  Let’s connect on Twitter

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