Designing Research

Getting the user research process right

An article by Mike Dunn 04-06-2018

There’s no one perfect way to do user research. Every method has its pros and cons. The key is to design the research process. Just like anything else you might design (a website, a gadget, or a garden) it’s about:

What: Defining the problem(s) you want to solve

How: Coming up with a solution that works within the constraints of time and budget

Getting the process right

At Edo we work with purpose-led organisations such as Barnardo's, Bristol Energy and the British Heart Foundation to help them use technology more effectively and focus on people. We work hard to design the research process right, often around tight budgets. We design it around what we already know, what we need to find out, and what the budget allows.

Working with our clients to decide our hypotheses (and the right questions to ask) is the first step of this. Next, we need to choose our methods. Interviews, contextual inquiry, surveys, co-creation workshops, and desk research are all options. No one is perfect, and a mixture is best. But the reality of research is that lots comes down to what those key constraints of time and budget allow.

From there it’s all about ‘triangulation’. Some research methods (like surveys) give you lots of data without much detail. Others (like interviews) let you get under the skin of a certain topic, but with a smaller sample. However, if similar patterns start to emerge across methods, you know you’re onto something.

Finding the right participants

With the right process planned, it’s time to recruit participants. Our clients are often keen to recruit participants themselves. They might have a pool of engaged supporters, customers, or volunteers they want to draw from, but participants recruited in-house tend to be very ‘warm’ to the organisation. Because they’re already engaged with it, they’re very aware of – and usually support – its goals. This means they’re often not representative of the rest of the population. Participants recruited by an external agency like People for Research tend to have a more neutral view of the organisation, if they have one at all.

I also find that very warm participants have often already participated in research sessions or customer panels for the organisation. It means they’ve often told their story many times before. In contrast, ‘cold’ participants may not have spoken about this topic to anyone, but close family or friends, at all. While this means it can take longer for a cold participant to open up, it also makes for more ‘unfiltered’ emotional insights when they do.

Doing it right on the day

I’m involved with the Participant Needs research project, and from Ben and Nic’s previous work we know participants’ experiences begin long before the day of the research.

On the day we always do our best to make participants feel relaxed and (assuming they’ve travelled to us) welcome. It can be daunting to turn up at a strange office in a strange part of town, so I’ve been working to improve this. When our building’s security desk changed their visitor procedures I used it as an opportunity to put together a simple guide to arriving at Edo (and found out in the process that searching Google Maps for ‘Edo’ produces a much better set of walking directions than searching for our postcode.) I’ve also been doing similar things for other research locations.

Top tip: no matter what your instructions say, on arrival participants could ask for your company’s name, your client’s name, your recruitment agency’s name, your name, your recruiter’s name, or just say they’re here for ‘research’. Tell all the security desk and reception staff you can find to expect this, and give them your phone number.

Like Dan Goodwin from fffunction, when we do research for charities it often involves pretty serious subjects. His guide to doing user research on sensitive subjects is well worth a read. People are often surprised to hear that research into sensitive subjects usually doesn’t mean lots of tears and raw emotion. If someone is willing to take part in user research on a subject like this they’re at a stage where they feel able to do so. The main thing is making sure they’re aware well in advance that this will be a topic of discussion so it’s not a nasty surprise, and assuring them they don’t have to discuss anything they don’t want to.

In summary

  1. Use your experience as a designer to design the research experience.
  2. Aim to use more than one research method and then triangulate.
  3. Make time to plan how you will recruit.
  4. If your client insists on recruiting their own participants, make sure you have time to employ a backup plan if they struggle to find relevant people.
  5. Use a professional recruiter such as People for Research if running qualitative recruitment.
  6. Consider the arrangements for the day of research – have you provided clear instructions?
  7. Be transparent with participants about what to expect in the session.

This article was originally published on the People for Research blog.

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