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User Research 101—When to do it, what to avoid, and what to remember.

User research is a key part of innovation and experience design. Creating or recreating the new can sometimes feel like a shot in the dark. User research provides a direct line to your target audience. Through it, you can identify what works, what doesn’t, and what preconceived ideas your users bring to the experience.

If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design.

Dr. Ralf Speth, CEO of Jaguar Land Rover

User Research—When To Do It

When you have a new idea. New ideas are fun. In order to ensure yours is well-timed, user research can help you understand how people are using experiences similar to the one you want to create. Figure out their pain points, what frustrates them, what they wish the experience has (but doesn’t) to help you hone your great idea into a brilliant one.

When you’re designing a new experience. When you are creating a new experience or service, understanding what your user needs and doesn’t can inform which features, or which touchpoints are the most important for an MVP. (Plus it cuts down on the endless back and forth that inevitably happens when creating something new -- and who really has time for back and forth?)

When you’re iterating your design or product. When iterating a product or service, you most likely already have a baseline understanding of what’s working. This is a great opportunity for you to figure out what’s frustrating your user. Where are they getting hung up? Or even better, what should you add? No one likes feature bloat, so to avoid it—remove the guesswork out of iteration and go straight to the source: your user.

When you’re introducing a new audience. An existing product or service that will be servicing a brand new audience. This new audience may be different in age, gender, education level, or even bring new use cases to the table. Do not make the assumption that all humans are the same—we’re not. We’re all kinds of different, so lean into the differences and find out what makes your new audience tick.

When you’re looking for product-market fit. Establishing product-market fit is essential for long-term success. In order to know you have product-market fit, don’t wait until launch day, start establishing it from the beginning. Learn how your user uses similar products, what’s not working, which features need improvement, what’s valuable, and what’s considered fluff.

User Research—What To Avoid

Leading questions. Be careful your questions aren’t giving away the answer OR insinuating there is a right or wrong answer at all.

Rescuing the user too early. It’s okay if your user gets frustrated. In fact, those are the most valuable reactions in creating a solid product. Don’t jump in, let them attempt to figure it out.

Forget to observe actions. Context is everything. Don’t just listen to what a user tells you, pay attention to what they are doing as well. Where they click, how engaged they are, what their screening criteria are telling you that may be different than what they say.

Interesting data that isn’t useful. As a researcher, you probably find a lot of things interesting. It doesn’t mean it’s useful for moving the needle forward on the business or product goals. Evaluate useful.

User Research—What to Remember About Users

Users aren’t designers. Most users are not designers. Don’t expect them to read between the lines, know what best practice UX/UI principles are, or even care if we opt to forego usability for aesthetic reasons. Bottom line: aim to make it useful.

Users like to give the right (or good) answers. We all love to be right. And secretly, if there’s an answer that appears to be the pleasing answer (aka right) that’s the one we’re going to give. It’s unconscious, most of us aren’t aware we’re doing it. But, because of that -- be aware of bias.

Users can’t predict their future behavior. Do not ask users what they think their future self wants or needs. We’re awful at predicting the future and we have zero empathy for our future self. If you need a user to think about the long-term, consider breaking it up into chunks and recruiting different age cohorts to help with the span.

Users can’t imagine a life that isn’t theirs. If we’re bad at predicting the future, we’re awfully bad at imagining what may happen if we had a scenario or product that may or may not exist in a future experience, that may or may not be a thing. Don’t ask users to “imagine they are using…” or “imagine you are…”

Writing your first user research plan? Download the template below.

User Testing Template from Rebel & Co

User Testing Template

Learn How to Conduct User Testing

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