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Modernizing User Research

Last Thursday I was a guest at Central’s Umami Talk with guest Tomomi Sasaki.

Tomomi is a UX researcher at AQ, a design studio with branches in Tokyo and Paris.

Using the usual interview format of Umami talks, Tomomi talked about the challenges doing user research.

This blog post is a mix of my notes and thoughts intermixed with her ideas. If you want the full rundown of what was actually said, I think Central will post about it on their blog like they did for previous talks.

Growing importance of research

Research is a neglected topic in design. It’s often the first thing that gets scrapped from a budget. Clients love to see screen designs and prototypes but they are not so interested in research.

A common statement is that “we already know what our users want”.

But there is a shift now where companies are realizing they don’t actually know what their users want. User research is getting more popular.

I personally think that’s due to books like The Lean Startup that basically tell you to get out of the door and talk to your customers.

(And by the way, we are talking about humans here – not “users” – which sounds a lot like drug users[*]. While I am completely aware of this distinction I still talk about users because of the surrounding terms “user experience” and “user research”.)

Tomomi talked about some ideas that she applied to make research more successful. She shares my belief that the right research will influence the success of a project in a major way; so if the research is more successful, the project will be.

Democratize the research process

One idea to improve the communication surrounding the research is to democratize the user research process – to let more people participate.

The classic method of a single person or small team doing research (this being interviews, field studies or user tests) and then presenting their findings in a huge Powerpoint should maybe be re-examined.

Tomomi joked that of course we are hired as consultants and sometimes it seems you are rated by the thickness of your slide deck.

An idea she presented that got a lot of people writing it down was to start a Tumblr where some of the design research is held.

She talked about the difference between fast sharing and slow sharing.

Maybe instead of the grand reveal at the end of the project you can communicate what you learned in a faster manner.

Because what sometimes happened in projects is that when she would present research that the company would say that they already knew, or the product had already moved on from a certain feature. Sometimes research would get delayed and it would be hard to stay in sync with the (development) team.

Another idea that Tomomi talked about related to democratizing the user research process is to send the whole team out to do user interviews. For example you would ask the product group including managers, technical people etc. to basically do your job.

Having people other than professional UX researchers do similar work can maybe lead to a breakthrough A-ha moment where maybe for the other people in the team there can be a click inside their brain leading to more user-centered thinking.

Tomomi shared the thought that maybe the quality of the research would suffer but the mind shift in a team could be at least as valuable.

Work on your own projects to be leading

She was then interviewed about her work on a Slack chat bot.

She said that this was a self-initiated project where AQ wanted to know how to design bots. They didn’t want to wait for the first client to ask how to design a bot; they wanted to do it themselves to gather the knowledge how to do it.

As an agency you have to be “leading”, i.e. you have to be ahead of other designers in a way. And when you are in a new customer engagement, the immediate value that you bring is that you’ve done lots of things and not just this one thing.

This led me to thinking how we can learn together as a team. What kind of side projects will ultimately lead to better client work?

At Mono, we have started a few projects here and there over the years, but lately we’ve been very focussed on the client work itself. Maybe it’s time for something new this summer!

Actually getting user research done

Another topic was actually finding research participants.

We usually leave it to our clients to find us participants, since they know their customers better than anyone. But this process sometimes leads to delays or research being scrapped from the budget altogether — because it’s hard to get people to free up their work schedule and to organize everything.

One interesting idea I noted was compensation for user research e.g. Amazon gift cards. We have never done this and I think it would be a good thing to compensate people for their time. Not a lot of people use Amazon so perhaps for Belgium we can use the local equivalent of a Coolblue or voucher.

Tomomi talked about using recruitment agencies to find participants. This is also something we have never done. I suppose it’s a good idea when the client’s clients are a bit more anonymous (e.g. when you are designing an e-commerce platform); but then you might as well go for the “family and friends” approach to save a bit on the budget side.

Research Ops & Conclusion

Lastly, there was talk about a new Slack community surrounding user research called ResearchOps.

This is a new Slack community mostly with the goal to learn from each other within the topic of user research.

To conclude, this evening confirmed that a lot of people are struggling with the same problems trying to do great user research. Research is a very heavy-handed word. In the end it is just a method of trying to figure out the problem in front of you.

Perhaps we have to re-examine some of our methods to make things better, and change the name of the things we do to something that feels more lightweight.

Want to talk design research? Get in touch!

Johan Ronsse

About the author

Johan Ronsse is an interface designer who is trying to find the balance between aesthetics and usability. He tweets as @wolfr_2.

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