Getting started with user research

I put out a call on twitter asking what topics my followers would be more interested in learning about. The basics of user research was requested by a few people, so following on from started with service design this post will define what a user researcher does, and provide some resources to help you to start learning about it.

User research is a core part of my work as a service designer, but it can also be a full time role. User researchers:

Research the needs and experiences of users through qualitative research

Specifically, they research the needs and experiences of a group of people that an organisation will consider to be it’s target audience for a particular service or application.

They use qualitative research, such as semi-structured interviews and usability testing. Qualitative research uses a small sample of research participants to allow an in-depth understanding of those participants experiences.

Researching the behaviour of users through quantitive research

In conjunction with qualitative research, user researchers also do quantitative research. Google analytics is one example of quantitative research, and any large data set can be used in a quantitative way. Quantitative research is used for scale; for example, how many people are taking a certain action or experiencing a particular error.

Qualitative research, like semi-structured interviews, can’t usually give you a sense of the scale of a problem like quantitative research can. But equally, quantitative research can’t give you the motivations or personal experiences of the people using the system. This is why user researchers use both in conjunction to get a full picture.

A quantitative approach may also be used to set performance indicators or targets for the service or application the delivery team is working on.

Research the needs and experiences of stakeholders

User researchers also research the needs and experiences of project or organisation stakeholders. These are typically people who are invested in the project, financially, emotionally or professionally, and may have some impact on it’s outcomes.

It is unlikely that there will be a large enough group of stakeholders for this work to be quantitive, so this is usually about understand the pressures and opportunities for a project or organisation through qualitative research.

Make research findings easy to digest and act on

The key job for any user researcher is to communicate findings to the project team and the project stakeholders in a way that is easy to understand and can be acted upon to build or improve the service or application.

They may do this by producing personas or by working directly with designers to produce ideal user journeys. They may just work closely with the delivery team to ensure that their findings are considered during the design process.

There is no industry standard approach to integrating user researchers and their findings with the rest of a delivery team, and this is a struggle for many researchers working in the industry today.

Resources to get you started

If you’d like to learn more about user research, here are some books and other resources to get you started:

Just enough research
by Erika Hall

A short-read quick-start guide for organisations and individuals wanting to get stuck into research for the first time.

Rocket surgery made easy
By Steve Krug

This is an excellent introduction into usability testing, from a basic prototype to a fully functioning application. It’s a companion to Don’t Make Me Think, which is also really work reading, but perhaps geared more towards web developers and designers.

Lean Analytics
by Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz

Lean Analytics is a short book with a clear introduction to how you use can use a quantitive approach to improve your products and services. It’s not google analytics specific, but it leaves you with a clear sense of the awesome things you could be doing with that sort of data at your fingertips.

Interviewing Users
By Steve Portigal

A great primer on the basics of on how to interview research participants well. Although “talking to people” seems quite straight forward, this book explains how much skill goes into a good semi-structured interview.

The Moderators Survival Guide
by Donna Tedesco

This is an excellent book that any user researcher should read. The first part of this book is a set of tips on moderating user research. The second half is a compilation of difficult situations that researchers might come up against during a research session, and recommendations on how to handle them.

Blog posts from the Government Digital Service on how they’re approaching user research. Some really useful detailed insights here. You may also want to check out their data blog.

Got any books or resources you think should be added to this list? Drop me a message ontwitter or in the comments and I’ll take a look.  

Next up, I’ll be producing a similar list for user experience design. I’d love to hear your book or resource recommendations for UX, send me a tweet or reply in the comments.