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The basic elements of user research

The process of creating a digital product or service always begins with a discovery phase in which we try to learn as much as possible about the group of people for whom we’re designing – the users. The more we understand about the attitudes and behaviours of our users, the more likely we are to create something which delivers value to them (which is, after all, the goal of user-centred design).

There are many ways of gathering valuable insights about users which range from the qualitative to the quantitative; from those which focus more on the attitudes of users to those which are designed to sniff out their actual behaviour (which is frequently quite different).

Before jumping straight into a slew of stats, writing lengthy surveys or interviewing everyone in sight it’s a good idea to gain an overview of some the most basic user research methods available. Often the simplest techniques can provide a wealth of valuable insights – enough to begin constructing prototypes or wireframes that can be put in front of users, assessed and iterated upon.

Some basic user research methods

Google Analytics

If it’s been set up and maintained properly, there’s almost no limit to the amount of information you can glean from a Google Analytics account. You don’t need to be an analytics/SEO expert to generate basic insights about your audience and their behaviour.

 

Metrics to look at include:

  • popular pages (where are users spending time, through which pages are they most likely to enter the site?)
  • traffic sources (how are users reaching the site?)
  • new vs. returning users (what proportion of users have visited the site before?)
  • bounce rates and exits pages (which pages are failing to hold users’ attention?)

If goal and event tracking has been implemented, then you’ll be in a great position to gather behavioural data on the users who complete the most valuable actions. And possibly identify impediments to the completion of those valuable goals.

While analytics is a great source of quantitative data it won’t necessarily help you work out why users are behaving in a particular way – for that we need more qualitative tools.

Social media and content research

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms can teach us a lot about how our clients interact with their users. The frequency with which they post, the tone of voice used and the level of engagement displayed by the audience can all provide valuable insight.

I always take a look at the client’s blog too: what kind of content are they sharing; how often do they publish; are users interacting with the posts and, if so, what are they saying?

There are very good tools out there for social media research, some of them expensive and some of them free. I’d recommend using a mixture of tools to get a good overview.

Some tools:

  • Followerwonk (free and paid versions) – a Twitter tool which allows you to analyse followers by gender, location, interests etc.
  • Agorapulse Barometer (free) – a tool for benchmarking the performance of Facebook pages.
  • SEO Tools for Excel (free and paid versions) – a plugin for Excel which pulls in all kind of social share metrics for URLs
  • Paid social media monitoring/management tools like SimilarWeb, iq or Sprout (paid) – these tools are primarily for marketers but often come with useful content and audience insights.

Market research

Almost every client will have a readily available list of their competitors, and be able to tell you their strengths and weakness. A quick bit of Google-based research can tell us about new competitors, gaps in the market and opportunities. The aims are to assess where the client is currently positioned in the market (i.e. what other options are available to their users) and determine where they would ultimately like to be positioned.

Stakeholder interviews

Talk to your Product Owner, make her part of the team. Find out what she wants to achieve with this project; how much pressure she is under from stakeholders; what her background is; and how you’re going to work together.

It’s a good idea to decide together who the best people to interview from the company are. Even though a lot of stakeholders will want to give their input in the project, always to talk to a few of the people on the front lines. These are the people who interact with the users on a daily basis and so they’re well placed to give you very interesting insights.

Surveys

As with building anything that the users are going to interact with, it’s important to put time and effort in putting together a user survey. Finding the right questions to ask, the right way to ask them, putting them in the right order, as well as making the survey usable and accessible is no small. It’s important to keep the survey focused and aim to get results which can be translated into design. But above all we need to avoid constructing a survey which pushes users into confirming our own biases.

There are some good free, flexible tools for doing surveys – the most common one is Google forms – but usually it’s good to invest a little bit of money to get the results analysed and presented in graphs and charts.

Interviews

This is the chance to actually sit with the users and ask them whatever you want. When you’re looking for purely qualitative information about the attitudes of users it’s a good idea to construct a focus group. Invite 3-4 users, serve some drinks and bring up some relevant topics for discussion.

Focus groups are a great way to learn about how digital products and services fit into the everyday lives of your users and how they interact with similar platforms to the one you are going to build. At Manifesto, for each project we like to assemble a group of ‘Manifesto friends’: 3-4 users who give us their insights throughout the design and UX process and, after we’ve done some building, who can take part in some usability testing.

Some user research thoughts

Throughout the user research process it’s important to keep two considerations firmly in your mind: first, make sure you’re producing insights which can actually be translated into design; and second, make sure you’re communicating the insights to the entire team. If designers and developers understand the reasons underpinning design choices then they’re more likely to deliver the intended benefits when they make those choices a reality.

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