Design research, or as it is now more commonly referred to in modern parlance, UX (User Experience) research, serves a range of purposes throughout the product design lifecycle. Ultimately, it helps to:
– Establish/confirm user needs, goals & mental models.
– Identify commonalities across our target audience(s).
– Ensure that the product or service under scrutiny matches consumer requirements and expectations.
– Direct future activity.
It is UX research that prevents us from designing for one user – ourselves! With this in mind, any UX research programme should have two component parts, in order to improve usability:
– Data gathering – At the start of the project, the research is focused on learning about the stakeholder requirements, as well as the needs/goals of the end users. Researchers will then conduct interviews, deploy surveys and observe current users or prospects. All this in addition to reviewing existing data.
– Data synthesis – Iteratively throughout the design process, the research focus then shifts to usability and sentiment. Researchers may conduct usability tests or A/B tests, interview users about the process and test assumptions to help improve the designs.
UX is an abbreviation of the term User Experience, whilst UI stands for User Interface. The design (and research) of both elements is crucial to product success (with both elements intimately connected).
But despite their interrelationship, their roles are quite different. Whereas UX research is an analytical and technical evaluation, UI is closer to what we refer to as graphic design research.
So, UX research is primarily concerned with understanding how a product feels, ensuring that the product or service has a logical and intuitive sense of flow. The ultimate goal of UX research lies in the creation of an optimised user experience so that the effect created for the new user is one that ‘just feels right’.
In contrast, UI research is all about optimising the product layout. To use an online example, the design of each screen, or page with which a user interacts must be consistent with the intuitive flow identified in earlier UX research. The UI design should visually communicate the specified path of the UX design.
In our experience, applications of UX research are multiple and varied – with almost all types of site, system or app benefiting from such activity, either in the optimisation of what is to be retained or in the facility with which ‘dead ends’ can be identified and closed off as early as possible.
The first step is to establish what the knowledge gaps are, and therefore what the design ‘need’ is. Do you…
– Know your user?
– Require feedback on the content?
– Need direction in terms of design?
– Want to test & refine?
Once you have established the ‘need’, you can decide on the best route forward, in addition to determining the most appropriate research tools to deploy (observational techniques, task-analysis, etc).
The various types of UX research range from in-person interviews to unmoderated A/B tests (and everything in between). There is a consistent thread that unites all approaches: a focus upon observation, understanding and analysis.
Observation – The first step to conducting effective research is learning to observe. Observation may seem like a simple skill, but it can be clouded by unconscious biases. Use your eyes, and take notes, so that you can spot patterns that may unite seemingly diverse groups of people.
Understanding – Good researchers need to understand the mental models/devices deployed by interviewees (to gain a richer appreciation of product needs and motivations, as well as the drivers associated with these priorities).
Analysis – The research on its own has limited value. In order to prove its worth and deliver its insights, it must be analysed sensitively and distilled for presentation to the development team.
There are a number of qualitative and quantitative approaches which can be employed – depending upon the precise information requirement. All of the following may prove to be valuable:
– Exploratory interviews.
– Quantitative surveying.
– Usability tests – users complete a series of tasks, with their behaviour observed – often incorporating:
-Card sorts – a set of terms/features are categorised by the user.
-Tree tests – architectural flow (and content hierarchy) is examined.
-A/B tests – random exposure of offering to users, with usage analytics undertaken.
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