The goal of User Experience design (UXD) is to improve the overall experience a user has with a product.
UXD involves a variety of activities—user research, persona mapping, information architecture, wireframing, interaction design, prototyping, testing to name a few. It involves every aspect of how someone interacts with any product or digital platform. For example, information architecture determines how a website or app is structured; interaction design deals with what interface is being used, and how users navigate through the product; while a website’s or app’s usability determines how functional and user-friendly the product is.
To me, user research is an extremely vital aspect of UX design. This discipline mainly involves thoroughly studying a target audience’s behavior; determining the different wants and needs of the very same target audience; understanding their motivations, and so on. After all, UX is all about creating customized product experiences, isn’t it? I’ve realized that when I’m familiar with the target users, my solutions are able to differentiate themselves from almost all other products out there, as it allows the users to feel the product has been made exclusively for them. The beauty of user research is that it mostly ends up in discovering the unknown needs of the users and thereby lays a foundation for stronger product USP.
Many see user research as a waste of time, and a stage that’ll slow down the entire design process. However, I’ve found that it’s actually the opposite— it could be a huge time-saver! This process makes it possible to have all the necessary information I need to be empathetic in my approach, and confidently build a product that’s tailored to the target audience’s behaviour, without having to wonder if what I’m doing is right or not. Therefore, the product delivery’s faster, as each and every problem will have been identified and addressed.
I’ve also noticed stakeholders are sometimes skeptical about user research because it’s known to be an expensive affair. But I’d like to point out that the research process isn’t expensive, as most of the time, it actually ends up lowering the overall cost of the project by guiding us in a right direction from the very beginning of our design process. With quality insights into the target’s behaviour, us designers are able to minimize the risk factor to a greater extent and to design a product that is seamless, usable and functional. I've found that with only a few quality interviews one is able to collect critical insights and useful data, within a reasonably short period of time; something that helps me make informed decisions through my design process. While this depends on the complexity of the product, it's never a bad idea to take baby steps into user research.
Now that I’ve placed quite a bit of emphasis on the importance of user research in UX design, here are a couple of benefits the research process provides me with:
Discovering Differences Between User Groups
Although a target audience may have similar needs, there do lie basic differences within the target audience and this provides critical insights that help shape the product/ experience. User research helps me identify these differences, allowing me to create a product that’s uniform, but appeals to each and every user from the target group.
I find surveys to be a great way of quickly collecting relevant information that allows me to discover the different needs of users, as well as understand the target audience as a whole when the target audience size is huge and varied. Survey questionnaire can be easily sent out through mail and makes collecting information simpler, faster and cheaper.
Besides surveys, I find that ethnographic research and focus groups are great ways of getting a better understanding of users. Especially with a small group or limited number of user groups. For example, when I was creating a product for a global school, and had to design a system that caters to an audience that’s ethnically diverse, my team and I carried out ethnographic research in more than two locations to understand the diversity in the behavior of the various user groups.
Understanding Users’ Mental Models
As mental models are derived from how humans/people perceive the world around them, it’s important to understand those of your target audience, in order to create a delightful user experience. By trying to understand the way users think, to the best of my ability, I'm able to deliver an experience that positively engages a user, and that meets the specifications of the mental framework targeted of that user base.
Contextual inquiry, is a research technique that allows me to understand the context of use of the product I’m to design. This research technique calls for observing users in their natural environment, and so, helps us identify their exact pain points, determine the cause and their decision-making abilities. Through contextual inquiries, I’m able to gain useful, realistic insights into user-behavior, which in turn help me create exemplary user experiences. I generally do this when I want to observe users very closely or when I am redesigning the existing product as it helps me gain an in depth knowledge of existing problems/ pain points.This one time, my team and I conducted contextual interviews with our target users, and realized each user was very different from the other. Their roles, their responsibilities, their awareness, their environmental conditions, their mental state all differed from each other’s. And so, we found that the best way to capture this data was by conducting contextual interviews and having candid conversations with them.
Determining How Users Actually Perform Tasks
It’s vital to figure out how a user interacts with the kind of products I’m designing/re-designing. Active listening, daily reports, and clickstream analyses are my go-to methods.
Active listening involves engaging the users in activities, conversations, discussions etc., and asking them relevant questions about the product. I’ve realized that when I actively listen to the user, all the information I’m looking for is brought to the surface, and I’m able to use it to create or improve my product/experience. For example, for a redesign project, we gave the target users tasks to perform on the interface, to see where they were generally struggling. We then talked to them about those pain points to get a deeper understanding.
Another technique to understanding how users perform tasks is by analyzing clickstreams (or click paths). As clickstreams show me which parts of a site users interact with and how much time they spend there, where and when they left, I’m able to easily, and thoroughly analyze their interaction with the product.
Having the right features in the product determines its usability and there is a proper process that needs to be followed to zero down on what is critical, what is important and what is less important and also what is not required.
In order to decide what features of the product need to be vetted, or given highest priority, I create user personas to map everything back to the users. A persona is basically a representation of a user, and is created through user research. With this, I’m able to validate my design decisions, prioritize feature requests, find inspiration, and also critique my own work.
Stakeholder interviews are something I like conducting as well, as they give me a chance to talk to all the concerned people, and determine what factors could affect my designs. It’s often observed that designing a product without any set goals, or with ambiguous requirements is a never-ending process, and so, stakeholder interviews help me understand the business goals, expectations, and shortcomings which I can then align with user goals to arrive at a definite scope for the design process.
Creating The Product in a Shorter Period of Time
Investing time into user research is often looked at as a time consuming process. However, when done efficiently, user research actually helps me build products faster, as I have all the facts and figures I need. This allows me to fully trust my judgment, and make design decisions faster thereby speeding up the overall product development process.
So to sum up, effective and thorough user research has helped me design products that are different from its competitors’, are engaging and serve the purpose they’re meant to serve. I’ve also managed to avoid countless costly mistakes while designing, as the research I carried out before has proven crucial.
To conclude, I strongly believe user research is what drives UX design forward, as without research, engagement with the product is impossible. As the industry-leading Nielsen Norman Group said, “UX without user research is not UX.”