Define the Problem
As a client, the first thing you should do is define the problems you want the research to solve. Before the project officially starts, gather the main stakeholders—the people who have a stake in the project’s outcome—to answer these questions:
- What are the problems that you want to solve?
- What do you already know about the problems?
- What do you want to learn through doing user research?
- When do you need to have the findings?
- What type of deliverable would be most effective for your organization—a detailed report, a formal presentation, or a quick and informal discussion of the findings?
- What are you going to do with the results?
- What obstacles might stand in the way of implementing the findings?
- What would you consider to be a success for this project?
To properly focus the research plan, you’ll need to convey this initial information to the researchers at the start of the project.
Kick Off the Project
At the kickoff meeting, present the information that you’ve gathered about the current situation and the problem you need to solve. Invite stakeholders who can help provide insights into the following:
- reasons for the project—that is, the problems you need to solve
- any prior research and the information you’ve gathered on the issues
- user groups, their characteristics, and the tasks they perform
- business or organizational goals for the research
- what you want to learn from the research
If there is an existing application, provide a demonstration of the main tasks that users perform with it.
Ease into the Subject Matter
Especially for researchers coming in from the outside, one of the most difficult parts of beginning a new research project is learning the subject matter. As the client, you and the other stakeholders are the subject-matter experts. Educate the researchers and designers by providing a high-level overview of your business, as well as any background documentation that would help the project team to get up to speed quickly.
Provide Enough Time for Research
Unless there’s an important deadline that you must meet, be flexible about scheduling the research—and don’t create artificial deadlines. Unnecessary time pressure often results in poor-quality findings. If you’re going to spend a lot of time and money on user research, allow enough time to both prepare for and conduct the research properly and thoroughly analyze the results.
Select Stakeholders for Interviews
After the kickoff meeting, researchers often gather additional information and perspectives through stakeholder interviews. Select the stakeholders who should participate in these interviews. Remember, stakeholders are not users. As the term implies, they’re people who have a stake in the project, and their role is to represent business needs.
At the beginning of a research project, no one knows more about your product’s users than you do—especially when the researchers aren’t part of your organization. So your helping to recruit the right participants is crucial to ensuring the success of the research. Describe the characteristics that define each of the user groups to the researchers. They will use that information to create a screener document comprising a list of questions that potential participants will answer to determine whether they’re the types of people you’re looking for.
On some projects, the researchers or a recruiting company will recruit the participants. However, when the participants are your employees, customers, or members, with whom you have existing relationships, it usually makes sense for you to do the recruiting. People are more likely to participate in research when they get a request from someone in their own company, a company with whom they do business, or an organization of which they’re a member. Ideally, you already have access to lists of employees, customers, and members.
Delegate Recruiting and Scheduling
However, even with the advantages of an existing relationship, it’s not always easy for a client to recruit participants. Consider whether you have the time and the necessary skills to contact, screen, and schedule participants. If not, delegate this task to someone who does. If you don’t have time, but want someone in your organization to handle recruiting and scheduling, an administrative assistant might be able to handle this task.
Get a Description of the Study from the Researchers
Ask the researchers to provide a description of the study and what participating in the research requires. You can use this description in your email messages or phone calls to prospective participants. When sending email messages to participants, include your name and contact information to make them seem more legitimate. Very few participants will actually contact you, but it makes them feel better if they know there’s someone they can contact.
Ensure That You Get the Right Participants
Be careful to recruit the right types of participants. I’ve had clients make the mistake of recruiting experts—the people who know the most about the system—rather than typical users. For example, they might recruit system administrators or department managers because they know so much about the system and can provide the most information. But these experts are far from being typical users, so involving them skews the results of the research. Be sure your researchers provide you with information about how to recruit participants, as well as details about the types of people to recruit, then follow their instructions.
Schedule the research sessions logically. Allow time for the researchers to get from one place to another between sessions. Include time for meals and breaks—plus some extra time, in case sessions go longer than expected. Scheduliing sessions within a tight time frame generally works better than spreading too few sessions over too many days. Schedule sessions logically by their location. Needlessly sending a research team on multiple trips would waste a lot of time, and you’d pay a lot in travel expenses. For example, I once drove from Philadelphia to Reston, Virginia—a seven-hour, round-trip drive—for one 90-minute contextual inquiry.
Review the Discussion Guide
The researchers will prepare a discussion guide for the sessions. This is a document that lists the tasks that the participants will perform and the questions that a researcher will ask the participants. Carefully review the discussion guide in advance of the sessions to make sure the research will obtain the information you need. Discuss any changes that you’d like to make with the researchers.
Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that a discussion guide really is just a guide. Research sessions are unpredictable and never go exactly as planned. Researchers need to be flexible and make changes on the fly to capitalize on unexpected opportunities that arise. You have to trust the researchers to use their judgment regarding when to stick to the guide and when to make changes to their approach or ask additional questions.