User Research Methods for UI and UX Designers

So you’ve been handed a project, told who your target audience is, and it’s time to get started on researching your users to ensure the final result of your project suits them and ideally fulfils a specific need.

The end game for any project where users are concerned can be to appeal to them and lead them to make a purchase, make their lives or jobs easier or more efficient, or inform and guide them. I’ve been involved in the subject of human-computer interaction for a few years now, and while studying the teachers would always present us with the same ol’ story to make us understand how incredibly vital user research is when designing a product.

In short, the story was that a team of engineers was entrusted with the re-design of the control panel of a fighter jet, but they failed to really take the time to observe their user’s behavior with the current control panel in order to see what was difficult and should be improved in the new design, and what worked well and should be kept the same. Instead, they decided to move controls around according to their own judgment, and when the time came for the users to test it out, they were reaching for controls that were no longer there and were completely lost trying to figure out the new panel. It was a complete failure, and the new panel had to be scrapped and re-designed, costing the company thousands upon thousands of dollars.

There was actually another story where the designers converted a button into a lever and the user couldn’t figure out how to use it in time and the jet crashed. But that example is a bit too extreme for our case 🙂

The bottom line is, if you don’t know your users, you won’t understand what they want or need. Here’s a nice little analogy:

Image from GDS User Research Tumblr.

Fortunately, as UI/UX designers working to improve and re-define the Web, we don’t have the intense pressure of knowing that if we get it wrong someone may crash and burn (at least not physically), but that doesn’t mean we should sit back and not do our absolute best to identify with our target audience and aim to give them a website that is useful, usable, and incites them to use it again.

So, here are the most popular methods to conduct user research:

Focus groups

This is definitely a popular one. You need around 5 to 10 participants who are representative of your target audience and spend up to an hour to gather their opinions, experiences, and expectations. This means selecting participants based on specific traits or characteristics, including:

  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Experience
  • Education
  • Ethnicity

During the focus group, it’s recommended to have a moderator (someone to ask the questions), a note-taker, and a camera to record the session so you can review it later. Before the session begins, ensure you prepare a script for the moderator to use as a guideline. You can include yes/no questions and open ended questions to encourage discussion among participants. As a tip, you may want to run your questions by a third person to make sure they’re clear and easy to answer.

For guidance on what type of questions to ask in your focus group, check out this article on Focus Group Questions with examples. If you’re re-designing a website that focuses on a product or service, then this article by Hubspot with Focus Group Questions for Content Marketing may be of more relevance. The user feedback gathered during a focus group is essential for designing something tailored to your users, so round up some friends of friends, or strangers with a small pay as incentive.

One-on-one interviews

Individual interviews are similar to focus groups, except you only ask the questions to one person, whether face to face, during a video-call, phone call, or even via chat. The benefit of conducting an individual interview is you can focus on the person and sometimes get more honest answers from them, since group dynamics are inevitable and people have been known to agree with the rest of the group due to peer pressure.

For a one on one interview, the same rules apply as with a focus group. You need pre-prepared questions, a person to conduct the interview, and a way to record the session or have a note-taker. These interviews are most useful when conducted at the start of the development cycle while you are in the process of reviewing the objectives and goals of the site.

Online surveys

Online surveys are a great method when you need a broader audience to understand what a site’s users are trying to accomplish (so you can re-design it accordingly), revise how effective a completed re-design is, or know what users think about a new feature on the site.They’re essentially structured online forms that users can fill out and will generate data to give you a general insight on their answers.

Here are some guidelines for creating online surveys.

  • Keep your surveys short and to the point, people don’t like to read length texts online and especially when it’s for free!
  • Let them know upfront how long the survey will take, the shorter the better, of course.
  • Include a mix of open-ended questions and multiple choice questions.
  • At the end, ask for permission to follow up on their answers if needed.

A huge benefit to online surveys is that they’re either free or very cheap to conduct. There are various platforms like SurveyMonkey that let you do one or two for free, but if you intend on doing this regularly it may be worth getting a paid plan and have access to useful data for your study. Here’s a list of Best Sites to Create Online Surveys with a mix of paid and free options. Do check them to see if they offer a free trial if you just need it one time.

Task Analysis

This method involves observing your users in action while they perform their tasks to achieve their goals. This is done before a design has started in order to truly understand what needs improvement on your site, whether it be better navigation or a missing feature that would make your user’s complete their tasks more efficiently. The results from a task analysis are usually a strong basis from which to define your website’s structure, design, and content strategy.

An easy way to conduct task analysis is to simply ask your user what they generally try to accomplish on the website, like making a payment or finding specific information. Then watch them perform the task and make note of the steps they made, what caused delays or confusion, and how long it took them to complete the task. You could follow up the task analysis with an individual interview to get a more detailed opinion on how they think the task would’ve been easier to do. Maybe a clearer call to action is needed or the website’s navigation is too confusing. Sometimes there are issues you may only discover on a website when watching someone else use it.

Personas

Personas (meaning “people” in Spanish), are made up representations of a specific type of user your site will be catering to. The benefit of using personas is you can test your design concepts, uncover gaps or inconsistencies, prioritize features, and highlight opportunities thanks to the use of a “real world” example. It’s also a useful way to show stakeholders how the website will benefit the users and lead to sales.

Ideally, you should only use 3 to 4 personas who represent the majority of your audience. For example, if your website sells accessories for new mothers, then a likely persona would be a woman between 25 – 30 years old, with a post college degree, a good level of experience with technology, and will be visiting the site for information on what accessories she would need to make motherhood easier.

Clearly, in order to create a persona you would need to research your audience beforehand to know what characteristics or recurring themes are present among your target audience. You can use the interview methods mentioned above.

For guidance and examples, Usability.gov has a great page explaining the best practices for creating personas which you may want to give a look at if you’re brand new to this method.

Scenarios

Scenarios are like short stories to give context as to who a user is (here is where you can use your personas), why they come to your site, and what goals they intend on achieving there. These stories can help you re-define the user interface and are a good basis for when you get to usability testing.

To create scenarios, write down 10 to 30 of the most common reasons that users have for visiting the website or tasks that users usually want to do there. Then you can begin to elaborate. For example, a goal-focused scenario would be “Flynn wants to find a web designer with experience in agile development”. So what would be the steps Flynn would go through to find the designer?

It’s unrealistic that you will uncover every single possible scenario, but the ones you do come up with will help you know what content the site must have and how it should be organized to be of use to your users.

Now keep in mind these methods are to understand your users before and during you’re designing/developing the user interface or experience. But remember to conduct user testing before, during, and after your product design process. It’s not enough to just know what they want or need, you also need to verify that what you’re working on effectively fulfils that want or need. You’ll almost always need to go back and tweak something, but how much you need to tweak depends almost entirely on how early and how often you conduct the testing. More about user testing coming soon! Stay tuned.

P.S. If you want a website that revolves around giving your users the best user experience and will effectively guide them to where you want them, give us a call and our team will take care of all the nitty gritty details for you.