User Research: An Interview with Sarah Doody

August 7, 2017

The field of user experience is growing. More companies than ever now understand the importance of UX design. However, UX designers still sometimes struggle because they’re working in a vacuum and building products that have features users neither want nor need. Solid user research is vital for UX designers to understand what users really want and need, as well as to ensure companies build products that satisfy the needs of users and shareholders alike.

I recently had a conversation with Sarah Doody about why user research is so important, how to approach it, and how to integrate research results into product designs. Sarah, who appears in Figure 1, is a UX designer and entrepreneur who is enthusiastic about helping other people learn to think like designers. She is the publisher of the popular weekly newsletter The UX Notebook—which has nearly 10,000 subscribers—and has created free UX resources, videos, and online courses on user research and building a UX portfolio, which are available from her Web site.

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Figure 1—Sarah Doody
Sarah Doody

The Role of User Research in UX Design

Janet: Are UX designers performing enough research?

Sarah: I think we could all stand to conduct research more frequently. Many teams do some research, but sporadically. If designers’ teams or colleagues are reluctant to do research, there’s a constant uphill battle every time they decide to do research. But, if you consistently make research part of your process, people in your organization will get more comfortable with it and come to anticipate it. This helps to make research a collaborative activity—where it’s not just the job of the UX team. Have people from other parts of the organization either contribute ideas on what you should be researching or actually request research that would help them in their roles.

Janet: How do you know when you’ve done enough user research?

Sarah: Research is about finding themes. When you start repeatedly hearing or seeing the same patterns, you know you are on the right track. In terms of doing research with a specific number of participants, I’m not a fan of mandating that you have to talk to X number of people. But I really like Jakob Nielsen’s article “Why You Only Need to Test With 5 Users,” because it provides good reasoning for people who want a number.

The quality of the research screener that you use to recruit your participants will determine how quickly you’ll start to hear themes and patterns in your user-research interviews. If you talk to eight people and their feedback seems scattered, that’s a good indicator that you didn’t have a solid research screener. However, if after talking to only three people, you start to hear the same things, you’ll know you did a good job of screening participants to get a group of people who met similar criteria.

Note—Sarah’s “65-Point Checklist for User-Research Projects” can help you track your progress on user-research projects.

Involving the Entire Team in User Research

Janet: What is the biggest trap UX designers fall into during research?

Sarah: UX designers often conduct research in a silo. This presents a problem when it comes time to present their research findings. We all know that, when you involve people in the process, they’re more likely to believe the results. So, when we conduct research in silos, this makes it harder for our colleagues to trust it.

Many already think research is a big, black box. So how can you involve other people in the research process? Invite them into meetings and check-ins at each step along the way—establishing the research goals, identifying research participants, and writing the interview guide. All of these steps provide great opportunities to involve your colleagues in the research process.

When Your Boss Does Not Support User Research

Janet: What if your boss says you do not need to perform user research because “We are the user!”—or because it’s just not that important?

Sarah: I hear this all the time. So many teams believe that they are the user of their product. But the truth is, they are not. Even though you or your teammates might be users of your product, the reality is that you are not the normal user. Why? Because you are too close to the product. You’re thinking about it every day. You see your product through a perfect lens. Of course, people need your product. Of course, feature X is necessary. Of course, it’s easy for people to complete task Y. The reality through which you see and experience your product is not the reality of typical users.

Let’s say your product has to do with booking hotels and, because you travel, you use it to book hotels. Of course, you are a user of your product. But, as I said earlier, you are not the normal user. I can’t emphasize this enough! You have to conduct regular user research so you can see the product through the eyes of your users. You have to see what people experience who use the product just once a month or once a quarter—people who don’t think about it every day. So, remember, next time your boss or colleagues say, “We are the user,” just remind them that you are not the normal user.

Note—Sarah discusses this subject further in her article, “Minimum Viable Research: How to Get Stakeholders to Buy into User Research.”

Usability Testing

Janet: Are you a proponent of coffee-shop usability testing?

Sarah: No. I am strongly opposed to the idea of coffee-shop usability testing. I really want people to understand the reasoning behind this! I have worked in companies where the boss or founder mandated that we print out our designs, go down to the corner Starbucks, and ask people for five minutes of their time to get feedback on the designs. Now, part of me can understand the argument, “Any research is better than no research.” But I think coffee-shop research is fundamentally lazy. With not that much extra effort, you could conduct research that will yield more informative, insightful findings.

One of the keys to doing successful research is to talk to the right people. We find the right people by developing specific criteria for who we want to talk to. Then, applying these criteria helps us create a good research screener, or questionnaire. Simply put, the screener acts as a filter that enables us to decide which people would, in fact, make good research candidates. When you create a product, it’s intended for a specific type of person. So when you do research, you want to engage people who are as similar to your target user or audience as possible.

Coffee-shop research doesn’t take this filtering into account. You end up just talking to whomever shows up in the coffee shop. You have no idea who they are or whether they fit the criteria for your target customer or user. Good research requires the context that lets you understand who these people are. Coffee-shop research lacks this context.

Coffee-Shop and Guerrilla Usability Testing

Check out Sarah’s video, “Why You Should Avoid Coffee-Shop or Guerrilla Usability Tests,” in Figure 2 for further discussion of this topic.

Figure 2—Sarah on coffee-shop and guerrilla usability testing

Data Analytics

Janet: What is the role of data analytics in user research?

Sarah: Data is amazing. It lets us see everything that people do in our product—where they put their mouse, where they actually clicked, how far down a page they scrolled, where they dropped out of the experience, where they came from, and so on. We can learn a lot about what people do. No doubt, the what is powerful, and we can make smart decisions about how to iterate our products based on the what. But people tell us the why.

Imagine you are working on an ecommerce product. Analytics can tell you where people are dropping out of the checkout process. But can analytics tell you why people are dropping out? No. That is why analytics alone are not enough. Analytics tell us the what and people tell us the why.

I tell teams that they need to treat analytics like a spotlight. Analytics can shine a light onto areas of your product that you should then follow up on by talking to actual people.

Data Alone Is Not Enough

Sarah explores this topic further in her video, “Why You Cannot Understand Your Customers Through Data Alone,” as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3—Sarah on data analytics

Sharing Findings with Your Team

Janet: When sharing findings with your team, how can you best create a connection between them and the results so they can design and build an exceptional product?

Sarah: The number one tip I have to help get your team to believe in your research findings is to involve them in the research in the first place. After the fact, it’s easy for people to say, “Oh, I don’t believe that.” But it’s much harder for them to push back if they were in the room with you, hearing and seeing the research play out in real time. Being there in the moment creates these Aha! moments that are hard to ignore. There’s a difference between hearing, “No one could find the Add to Wishlist button on the product detail page,” and seeing people completely miss the big green Add to Wishlist button in real time.

If you do have people who are research skeptics, consider inviting them to be observers. During research sessions, I simply tell the participant that these people are part of the research team, and their job is to listen or take notes. Make this clear so the research participant isn’t wondering, “What is this person doing?”

In terms of presenting your findings, you need to do more than just tell your colleagues, “This is what happened.” You need to build a case. Treat it like a legal case. Come up with the key insights, then bring along evidence to support your findings. By backing up your findings with evidence, you make it harder for people to argue. So what is evidence? Quotations, audio clips, video clips, analytics, heatmaps, screenshots. Anything that helps back up the insights you’re putting forward.

Note—Find out more about Sarah’s “User Research Mastery” course by visiting her Web site, and sign up for her weekly newsletter The UX Notebook

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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