Building a user research strategy

4
minute read

If you’re reading this post, chances are you already recognize the value of user research and how crucial it is to the success of your digital product or property. The largest, most talented and well-funded product teams don’t amount to much unless the work they do is informed and directed by input from users of the product themselves. And while this may seem obvious, it’s surprising how often this essential set of activities is forgotten, postponed or even dismissed altogether. 

Getting started

I’m a huge advocate for “just getting started” as opposed to drowning in details and over-planning, and this is one of the most common reasons why user research gets sidestepped. The reality is that research takes time - and time is rarely a plentiful resource with digital/product teams. 

But here’s the thing - user research doesn’t have to be an all or nothing scenario. Whether you’re just getting started or are looking to fold research into your existing process, you’ve got options. In fact, the most sustainable way to make user research part of your project life cycle is to start with the type that best suits your needs right now. Attempting to overhaul your process and go “all-in” can be overwhelming and unmanageable for most organizations, usually resulting in abandoning the initiative altogether. So, start small and grow based on what makes the most sense for your organization’s needs in the moment.

Types of user research

Generative

Generative research is about building a fundamental understanding about users themselves. It helps us to define their needs and wants and how those cross over to your digital product or platform. This type of research can be conducted in various ways, scaling to your budget, resources and desired outcomes. Some examples include:

  • Web surveys
  • 1:1 interviews with users
  • Detailed user diaries with observations gained through shadowing users

The ultimate goal of generative research is to help us generate hypotheses and distill those findings into potential solutions that may be helpful. 

Iterative

Derived from user needs, chances are that you’ve likely come up with a number of potential solutions that could solve issues for the user. Iterative research is where we field these directly with users and gather feedback on our hypotheses. 

But does this mean building out each of our ideas into high-fidelity visualizations? Absolutely not. In fact, iterative research is often simply about playing back some of your ideas to users through a simple conversation and adjusting as needed. Some examples include:

  • 1:1 interviews with users to explain or demonstrate hypotheses
  • Online A/B testing to solicit preferences and feedback
  • Formal focus groups to demonstrate solutions to a group of users and gather input

The desired outcome of iterative research is to narrow down a list of potential solutions to a single hypothesis that you feel will best address all or most of the users’ needs.

Evaluative

You have what you believe to be the perfect solution for your users’ issues. Now you need to actually confirm that your solution will deliver, and this is where evaluative research comes into play. There are many tactics for evaluative research, most of which are also synonymous with traditional usability testing. In essence, this is where we put an actual prototype or similar visualization in front of actual users and record how well they are able to complete tasks with it. 

Think of evaluative research as a kind of dress rehearsal. You’re going to observe some kinks that need to be worked out or perhaps some edge use cases that your proposed solution didn’t originally account for. And that’s the point. Before rolling your solution into a formal product release and going live to users, evaluative testing is about making sure it’s rock-solid, usable and polished. 


Take-away

While the three types of research above imply a sequence, you don’t need to use every type for every project. Remember - any type or quantity of research is 100% better than none at all. 

If all you have to work with are customer logs and informal feedback, you’ll gain a much stronger sense of what your users actually want and need. If you’re only able to arrange a 15 minute call with a few of your customers, your proposed solutions will be better grounded and informed. And if you can only afford to spend 1 day running ideas or prototypes by users, your end product will be vastly superior. 


While the common thread across all research activities is, of course, is to listen, we must also be willing to ask the hard questions and accept the unpopular answers. We build our products and properties for our customers, not for ourselves or our egos. And this is why humility and empathy are thrown around so often when discussing user experience. Adopting any form or user research into your process acknowledges that your users aren’t just primary stakeholder group. They are the one and only factor that can differentiate your product and deliver unparalleled success.

About the author

Steve Coppola is a user experience & digital marketing professional - and founder of Input UX. With over 25 years of agency experience, he has worked with many of the world's most respected brands in various capacities including UI/UX design, customer research, usability testing, and front end development.
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