Leveraging User Experience Research in Driving Business Results: A Quick Guide

March 5, 2012

User research is a powerful truth-finding tool that can help business leaders to make better business decisions, in addition to supporting UX professionals in making good product design decisions. In this article, I’ll look at user research best practices through the lens of driving business benefits.

If you’re a business leader, this article can serve as a quick guide on how you can leverage user research in supporting your organization’s goals. If you’re a product manager or UX designer, you’ll learn about some interesting ways of using user research to you develop better products. If you’re an experienced user researcher, I hope to give you some new ideas about connecting user research with business results.

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Letting Business Objectives Guide Your Research

Although user research is a user-centered design practice, it can do more than just drive better user experiences. User research can also be instrumental in improving business results. Therefore, researchers should always consider how business objectives—in addition to UX considerations—could guide both test planning and the interpretation of results. Here are two examples.

When determining what types of users to interview, think about both what users would be most impacted by a product and the business opportunities that different user segments present. This understanding can help you to prioritize the user segments from which to recruit research participants.

Making design recommendations should involve more than simply applying UX design principles. You should also consider what design approach would bring greater business benefits. When choosing among a few equally valid design solutions, you should intentionally choose the one that leads to greater business benefits—for example, encouraging purchasing behavior.

Ensuring Conversations About User Research Happen Really Early

User-centered design is an integral part of product design and development. There can be no business success if you develop products that don’t speak to user needs. So, regardless of whether you plan to conduct formal user research, a conversation about user research should always happen at the earliest stage of product development. It should happen even before there is a design initiative. You should already be talking about research at the point when business strategy gets formulated.

The right way of introducing early-stage conversations about user research is not to frame the discussion around research. Rather, you should simply have discussions with business owners about users’ needs, the competitive landscape, business metrics, and perceived user pain points. If there is a knowledge gap around these topics, the need for user research naturally surfaces.

Thinking About Success Measures Before You Begin

Given that the intention of all user research is to drive certain product design or business outcomes, it is of paramount importance for user researchers to think about how to measure design success and incorporate such decisions in any research report. You should derive such success measures from in-depth discussions with the product managers and UX designers, so the whole team is committed to driving success based on the same criteria. Doing this helps demonstrate the value of user research to business leaders and, ultimately, to drive measurable improvements.

Measuring Success Qualitatively

You can measure the success of a UX design quantitatively or qualitatively. Some quantitative measures include click-through rates, transaction revenues, and registration rates. But it’s not always possible to measure the success of a user experience quantitatively. Plus, because numbers can be misinterpreted, qualitative measurements sometimes better reflect true improvements a UX design team makes after conducting user research studies. It’s easy to see the impact of qualitative improvements in a user experience—users probably find a user interface much less confusing, and they’re much better able to complete tasks. While limited sample sizes mean your observations are not statistically significant, they are important indicators of UX improvements.

Translating Insights into Actions: Develop Hypotheses First

For user research to deliver relevant insights, you need to think hard about what you want to explore, evaluate, and validate. It is not as simple as saying:

  • “I’d like to know how to improve the usability of this mobile app.”
  • “I want to measure whether this is a successful design.”
  • “I want to know more about users’ mobile usage of an application.”

To get insights that translate into results, you should frame your business questions as well-defined hypotheses that you want to evaluate through your user research.

Instead of going into user research wondering how to improve usability, develop a few of your ideas into design alternatives that you believe would improve specific aspects of a product’s usability and test them. Instead of simply measuring whether a design works, focus on evaluating key areas that you think are user pain points. Instead of investigating users’ general behavior around mobile usage, develop some mobile application concepts that you hypothesize would address people’s mobile needs and take them to users for feedback.

Doing Research in an Agile Manner

Many perceive user research—and research in general—to be a rather formalized and systematic process. Consequently, organizations that focus on moving forward quickly with producing design deliverables often shun user research. While there’s certainly some truth in this perception, it’s possible to conduct user research in many different ways—some of which are very flexible and applicable within an agile development process.

A good example is the RITE (Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation) method, which allows multiple design and research iterations during just a few days of testing. Another example is persona development. Although the initial creation of personas requires a large, systematic effort, you can quickly update your existing personas by incorporating new insights about users to address the specific needs of your current design project. Thus, you don’t always need to take a formalized approach to developing personas.

Merging Qualitative and Quantitative Methods:

1 + 1 > 2

When developing a 360-degree understanding of user behavior, a great starting point is to think of user research in qualitative and quantitative terms. Qualitative research provides an in-depth understanding of user behavior and drives effective UX solutions. Quantitative research provides large-sample-size findings and lends lots of credibility to your insights. Whenever you are able to do more than one study on the same topic, try to plan at least one qualitative study and one quantitative study. A combination of these two methods gives you a very powerful truth-finding tool.

A typical way of combining these two methods is to conduct a qualitative study to develop an understanding of user behavior in an open-ended, exploratory manner; then to formulate a few hypotheses; and finally, to validate them through a follow-up quantitative study.

There are many different ways of combining these approaches. You can easily combine them even within a single study. For example, people typically view eyetracking as a hard-core quantitative method, because its explanatory power comes from aggregating user behavior across a large sample size. However, after an eyetracking session, you can always incorporate a think-aloud protocol to probe user motivations. Focus groups provide another example. Although they are certainly a qualitative technique, you can derive some conclusions from large sample sizes by aggregating the responses from many focus groups and leveraging quantitative techniques such as surveys.

Understanding the Differences Between User Research and Market Research

It is quite common for people outside the field of user experience to confuse user research with traditional market research. In fact, despite their being some overlap between the two, user research is very different from market research in some critical ways. User research focuses on understanding users’ interactions with a product, while market research focuses on customers’ attitudes toward and perceptions of a brand, a product, a message, or a pricing model. The key word here is interactions. Because of this difference, user research leverages an interview process that looks at the context, the tasks, and the end-to-end workflows for how users interact with a product; and focuses heavily on what they do to drive research conclusions, while market research places more emphasis on what they say.

You can and should combine user research and market research for a one-two punch that lets you deliver truly comprehensive customer insights. While market research can lead the way when you’re looking at market share, general customer sentiment, and user segmentation, user research can give you insights into what kind of user experience you should deliver to drive sustained business success. For instance, you might start by conducting market segmentation research, then follow up by creating digital-space personas, basing them on your segmentation data and additional user-research interviews. The combined insights let you understand the overall market, as well as exactly what you should deliver to create a delightful customer experience.

Synthesizing Findings from Multiple Studies

While you must do research studies one at a time, no one study can truly provide a 360-degree understanding of user behavior. On the other hand, you can and should synthesize insights that you derive from individual studies to get a more comprehensive picture of your users. For example, by conducting, say, two rounds of usability studies on a particular product, you should be able to derive greater understanding of your users’ overall workflows and usage scenarios from the studies—if you include a few questions that probe these extra dimensions in your test script. You can integrate such holistic insights with insights you’ve derived from analyses of Web metrics and quantitative surveys, leading to the development of personas that reflect the full range of users’ psychological and behavioral traits.

Validating Target Users and Use Cases

Oftentimes, product managers or business stakeholders have already identified the target users and use cases for the product your research is to examine. However, as a user researcher, it is your responsibility to review, challenge, and propose new ideas about users and use cases during the course of your interviews.

For instance, let’s say product managers think that large eBay sellers use eBay Web applications in their selling process, but in fact, many such sellers hire someone else to deal with stuff on the computer and have little direct knowledge of the eBay Web applications for selling. The implication of such a finding would be that eBay should design the Web applications to meet the needs of those who are actually using the software rather than the eBay sellers themselves. This kind of learning helps a business align product development efforts with the needs and use cases of actual users.

Getting Team Participation While Still Maintaining Control

It is very important to have your product team members observe research sessions during which you interview users. No research report can replace the experience of their observing first-hand how users interact with a product or the understanding of users that they can gain thereby.

After each research session, your team can discuss new learnings from what you’ve just observed and work collaboratively to come up with innovative solutions for the issues that you’ve identified. The product manager and UX designers likely have a deep knowledge of the product domain and design expertise, respectively. By incorporating the team’s feedback, a user researcher can come up with design recommendations that make better design and business sense.

However, I do not mean to suggest that the analysis of research findings is a democratic process. The user researcher always owns the interpretation of findings from research and drives any brainstorming sessions, but he can leverage team discussions to enrich and facilitate his interpretation of the findings.

Doing Preliminary Design Work Before Conducting User Research

To effectively leverage user research in informing design decisions, it’s best to do some preliminary work on design before conducting user research. Creating a few alternative designs that illustrate competing design philosophies is a great way to elicit design insights through research. To make this work, user researchers and designers need to figure out what key elements differentiate the design alternatives—for example, different color schemes, different navigational models, different page layouts—and collaborate on creating prototypes that accurately depict the differences among these elements.

Answering Strategic Questions

Certainly, it’s common to conduct user research studies primarily to answer tactical questions that stakeholders have posed. But to truly deliver user and business benefits through user research, a researcher should always think of the bigger picture—both when planning the user research and when proposing recommendations.

Even when you are conducting usability studies that have very well-defined objectives like evaluating ease of use and content discoverability in relation to specific user tasks, you can use the opportunity to validate both your team’s

  • overall design approach—Does this workflow most effectively meet user expectations? and
  • business model—Despite a user interface’s having great usability, does it effectively guide user behavior in driving conversions, registrations, and repeat visits?

Taking this strategic approach requires user researchers to do more than their stakeholders have asked them to do. But these kinds of value-adding activities really elevate the quality of your research work to a different level.

Leveraging Your Understanding of UX Design Principles and Cognitive Psychology

How effectively you, as a user researcher, can influence stakeholder behavior has a lot to do with whether your insights are trustworthy. You can certainly leverage your extensive professional experience to make good arguments for your recommendations. But to improve their quality, depth, and credibility, you should refer to known principles of human-computer interaction and cognitive psychology whenever appropriate.

For example, in explaining why it’s important to provide an explicit call to action in a user interface, you can refer to the fact that humans are better at recognizing an action that they can see on the screen than recalling, from memory, what action they should take without any reminder on the screen. Referring to such principles helps you to connect your observations of user behavior to scientific findings—thus, lending depth and authority to your design recommendations.

Keeping in Mind Your Goals for User Research

Researchers do not conduct user research for its own sake—there are always goals and actions that you intend to take based on your research findings. While this may sound like common sense, it’s unfortunately all too common for a researcher to conduct user research without a product team’s having a clear understanding of exactly how the research could help their project. Should the research influence a product’s entire design direction? Can you improve a product’s detailed interaction design? Can you influence the visual identity of a brand? Or are you just trying to feel comfortable with your design without having any intention of really improving it?

You should think through all of these questions before conducting any user research and try to achieve consensus among your team members on the actions you’ll take to utilize your findings. Throughout all stages of research planning and execution, keep in mind what actions you intend to take based on your findings. In so doing, you can create a more targeted interview guide; more effectively follow up with in-depth, probing questions during interviews; and develop more actionable UX design recommendations. 

Founder of UX Strategized

San Bruno, California, USA

Frank GuoA well-respected UX strategist and architect, Frank has co-authored a book chapter and published more than a dozen professional papers, covering such topics as advertising, Web promotion, eyetracking, persona development, product strategy, and search results. He has also developed a large body of user-research techniques and UI-design guidelines and trained many in applying them. Recently, at the Human-Computer Interaction International conference, Frank received a best-paper award for a paper that he co-authored. Frank is currently providing UX strategy and design consulting services through his firm, UX Strategized.He set up and led user research practice for Barclays’s iShares business and established foundational digital client insights for the firm. His work had a deep impact on iShares’s digital strategies and shaped the award-winning UI designs of iShares’s Web tools and iPhone app. Previously, Frank established eyetracking as a key research method at eBay. He led advertising research there and published a professional paper on best practices for online advertising. He also led design guidelines research that influenced eBay’s UI design best practices and full-cycle user research for the shipping and seller tools, influencing the tools’ overall redesigns. Prior to joining eBay, Frank conducted design-strategy research at Oracle, influencing the UI architecture of its enterprise software suite. Frank obtained a PhD in cognitive psychology from UCLA, where he conducted extensive scientific research on consumer psychology and taught advanced statistics.  Read More

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