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Lessons Learned in My First Year as a UX Researcher

December 18, 2017

UX research has become something of a passion for me over the past year—and the area in which I have personally seen my most noticeable career growth to date. While I enjoy creating and executing research plans for my clients, the most enjoyable part of my role as a user researcher is speaking with users, truly understanding their needs, and digging into the key issues they face—not just with my clients’ products and services, but in their day-to-day role.

I was first introduced to the world of UX research and design in 2015. The company I was working for was in the middle of a major digital transformation, was implementing agile—specifically, Scrum—across the business, and was undertaking a massive cultural shift for the organization as a whole. We had just begun employing UX designers on product teams. The aim was to catch up with and, hopefully, overtake the competition and diversify our current product offerings by putting users at the center of the design and development of our new products.

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Having previously transitioned between a variety of roles, I thought becoming a UX researcher would give me a solid career path to follow—offering the sort of progression that had eluded me up until that point. So, in July 2016, I was the first in my company to take on the role of user researcher.

With no formal training in qualitative research and no background in psychology, human-computer interaction (HCI), human factors, or any of the other myriad disciplines relating to User Experience, I spent my first year as a user researcher constantly learning. By reading from a variety of sources, I learned the ins and outs of various research techniques and methodologies. I spent time figuring out what worked best in what situation, testing unfamiliar methods, and stumbling over just about every pitfall there is!

In this article, I’ll share the most important lessons I’ve learned during my first year in UX research.

The Value of a Well-Defined Research Brief

Before beginning any UX research project, preparing a well-defined brief and getting the client to agree on it up front is key. A solid brief not only sets expectations with the client at the outset, it also defines the important questions your research needs to answer and the hypotheses you need to test, as well as the methods the team will employ when conducting the research. Plus, a good brief defines the timeline for completing the work, as well as the major milestones along the way. It defines the dates on which you’ll deliver the research results and any associated artifacts, as well the form in which you’ll deliver them—for example, a presentation, written report, or workshop.

When I’m writing a brief for a research project, I prefer to work collaboratively with the client, developing the key questions they want to answer or concepts they want to test. This makes it easier to create an achievable brief on which you both can agree.

Some important questions I often ask clients include the following:

  • What do you want to find out?
    • What is the hypothesis you want to test?
    • What are the underlying assumptions?
    • Who are your key users?
  • How much can you spend on this research—money, time, people, tools?
  • When do you require the research results?
    • How much time do we have to conduct the research and get user feedback?
    • When are the specific deadlines?
  • How do you prefer to communicate?
    • How often?
    • Using what methods?

I’ve experienced cases where the project brief wasn’t tight enough, so the research ended up dragging on longer than anticipated and the questions that the client originally posed were not answered adequately. While the research findings weren’t a complete write-off, they weren’t as useful as they could have been had the brief been stronger.

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The Time It Takes to Recruit Research Participants

One of the major lessons I’ve learned from my projects is that recruiting participants for a research project takes time—often a considerable amount of time—no matter how well-defined your brief. It’s essential to plan sufficient time for recruiting, especially if you’re doing the recruitment yourself, as I was. It took me anywhere between one and four weeks to recruit ten or fewer participants for a single research project. If you’re planning to conduct research at a participant’s workplace or home, it often takes more time to agree on a date for a research session. As a user researcher who is doing all the recruitment for my own projects, I found that recruitment was pretty much a full-time job!

You can alleviate many recruitment issues by using a participant recruiting agency, but this can be costly. If this is the route you want to take, you and your client must agree up front on a budget for participant recruitment and incentives. Offering incentives is often a good way to get people to participate in your research, but depending on the size of your project, the cost can be an issue.

The Importance of Noting Observations After Research Sessions

There have been a few occasions when I’ve thought to myself: Nah, I don’t need to take notes. I’ll remember everything anyway. Then, when I was knee deep in analysis, I realized I may have missed some really important contextual nuances. If you find yourself in this situation, you won’t be able to build the full picture for your client.

During interviews, there are often lots of small things you won’t pick up from an audio recording or transcript—for example, an interviewee’s body language—that may be key to forming a complete picture of how participants were feeling at certain times, as well as the environment in which they were working, which can often affect them in one way or another.

It’s essential to capture some notes between each interview, contextual inquiry, or usability test that you run, even if you’re just making some interesting observations or noting details you’ll need to remember later on in your research. These notes can be invaluable when you’re completing your analysis of the results and providing feedback to your client.

Not Being Afraid of Awkward Silences

During any normal conversation, people generally try to fill any awkward silences with small talk or mundane chit-chat. But, during UX research, don’t be afraid to let an awkward silence run its course. More often than not, participants will fill the space themselves—perhaps by providing an interesting insight—or they’ll give you a clear cue that says they’ve got nothing else to add, allowing you to move on. The important lesson here is that you don’t want to miss any juicy insights a participant may provide. So take your time and give the participant the opportunity to think about and answer your questions.

I find that awkward silences often occur after why questions. For example, why did the participant take a specific action? These kinds of questions often occur during usability testing when you’re trying to understand how people interact with a Web site or product and why they’ve taken specific actions.

The Pain of Scope Creep

This is a lesson I learned the hard way: Scope creep happens when a fundamental change occurs midway through a research project. This could be a change in the questions you’re asking participants or the hypotheses you’re testing. Scope creep can derail an entire project. Here’s an example:

I shifted an entire project to focus on a broader objective for which I needed a much larger sample of participants—rather than testing the one, very focused thing I’d originally wanted to validate. This meant the research and testing we’d originally conducted was not sufficient to enable us to make solid recommendations. Plus, our subsequent research, while wide ranging, was not specific enough to validate the initial hypothesis. I’m sure you can see the dichotomy here.

A change in scope can be problematic for several reasons:

  • The participants you’ve recruited for the research may no longer be appropriate once you’ve changed the scope.
  • The research you’ve completed to date may no longer be relevant.
  • The findings you’ve discovered so far may no longer be relevant or may not be as significant.

A well-defined project brief makes scope creep less likely to happen. If the client is not directly involved in observing the research, ensure that you keep the client up to date on the progress of your research to help prevent scope creep.

Taking the Time to Do Analysis Right

Analysis is important. Brad Nunnally and David Farkas recommend doing three hours of collating and analysis for every hour of research. I’ve found this to be true. It’s very important to dedicate enough time to collating all of your artifacts and analyzing the hell out of them!

Depending on the research method you’ve used, collating and analyzing certain artifacts can take more time than others. Some of the analysis tasks that can take varying amounts of time include transcribing interviews, highlighting transcripts, creating Post-it notes for key quotations or observations, watching and rewatching videos of usability-test sessions, writing up your final report, and delivering your final presentation.

I find that analysis requires an absolute minimum of one week. For larger projects, you may need to dedicate up to two full weeks to analysis. However, if you assume three hours of analysis for every hour of research, it is relatively easy to estimate the time it will take to analyze all of your artifacts.

Bringing Your Client Along on the Journey

A key lesson for me, coming into UX research as a complete novice: While it may be tempting to go barreling ahead into a research project on your own or just with the members of your research team, UX research is most effective when you bring the client on board with you.

The first step in achieving this is creating and agreeing on the research brief with your client, as I mentioned earlier. This usually starts the relationship off on the right footing and establishes a common understanding between both parties. The brief should also set out key milestones for getting the client’s feedback or input.

When conducting the research, the client—my clients tend to be product teams—should ideally attend some of the research sessions themselves, as observers or note takers. At the very least, have them listen to audio recordings of interviews or view videos of some of the usability-test sessions.

Involving the client also extends to the analysis of the research findings you’ve gathered. It’s important to bring your client into the research process so they’ll appreciate the rigor with which you conduct your research and understand the processes you employ in garnering insights. If clients immerse themselves in the analysis with you, they’ll be more likely to take action as a result of the findings. I often ask my clients to have a go at analyzing some of the artifacts from the research themselves—typically, transcripts, audio recordings, or videos.

Having your clients participate in your research makes the findings much more accessible to them. It also helps you avoid one of the major pitfalls research teams often face: engaging in a transactional relationship whereby the client pays for the research, then doesn’t see you again until you present your findings, at which point the client proceeds with what they planned to do anyway, without ever consulting your research again.

If you involve your client in the research, they’ll gain first-hand experience of the users they intend their product or service to serve. Thus, your research findings will have greater and longer-term impact.

Continuous Learning

One year into my career as a user researcher, it’s safe to say that I’ve certainly learned a lot! But the learning doesn’t stop here. The field of User Experience is constantly changing and is growing exponentially, as the demand for UX designers and researchers spreads to more industries. It is important for all UX professionals to engage in continuous learning and adapt to the changes in the industry so they can —remain at the top of their game.

If you’re a junior UX researcher, I highly recommend your reading UX Research: Practical Techniques for Designing Better Products, an O’Reilly book by Brad Nunnally and David Farkas. This book provides a really good overview of the main UX research methods and processes you can use and adapt in your role as a UX researcher. 

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User Researcher at Emerald Publishing

Bingley, West Yorkshire, UK

Jamie AllenJamie is currently in the early stages of his career as a user researcher, working for global academic publisher Emerald Publishing. Nevertheless, he has already developed a solid base of knowledge and has tried out several research methods across a variety of projects. He has developed a passion for understanding the needs of users and translating his learnings into clear design recommendations, enabling his clients to make truly evidence-based decisions during product design and development.  Read More

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