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Valuable Tips for Conducting User Research No One really Talks About

Whether we conduct user research for the first time or numerous times, there are small details you as the user researcher/designer need to do in order to provide a smooth and thoughtful usability session. Sometimes we go in without enough context or let ourselves become too focused on conducting a study that we forget about the most important aspect of it all; the users who are apart of our study, the people who have thoughts and feelings just like we do.

There are small components which go into conducting a great usability study and though they may not be as meaningful to you, they speak volumes for the user who is being interviewed and how they feel.

Designers need to be thoughtful about every step of the design process, including conducting good research.

Because we are “human-centered” (or should be), It is our job to make our users feel comfortable and have them know what they will be expecting in a usability study. If we don’t prime our users before bombarding them with questions, it can lead to insights that aren’t related to the study itself but instead a confused user not knowing what to do or answer the questions.

Always ask if it is okay to film/record

Before beginning an usability session, the one question that most junior designers should ask, but don’t is “Is it okay to film and record you?”

Unless your participant signed a consent form to be filmed, you might think, why is this question so important? It’s because when you film or record someone without their permission, you are essentially evading their privacy and simply put, it’s illegal and unethical. As design researchers, our job is to be ethical and honest when we conduct interviews. After all, our calling should be to design emphatic and useful experiences for people. This means we need to understand people and have a meaningful usability study/interview with them to gain their trust.

Respect your participants privacy. You want them to trust you. If they aren’t okay with being filmed, DON’T FILM THEM. Albeit this happens sometimes, but if that’s the case, focus your time on listening and observing while taking notes on the important things (mannerisms, behavior, etc.) vs purely relying on a recording. In general, you want to be able to gather as much data as possible during the interview and not do that after the interview to save time and focus on more synthesizing data/refining data. After the initial moment, it can be hard to remember things which happened during it.

Do not ask leading questions

You don’t want to lead users on because it affects the validity of your study. Did they answer on their own or did you prompt them to answer in a certain way? The idea is that you want to confirm your assumptions through what you see, not mislead anyone to come up with a conclusion that fits something. If something happens and it wasn’t expected, that is valuable data in which you can use to assess a potential problem or even discover a new problem that is more relevant to your users. You are designing for others, not yourself.

Here is an example of a good interview question:

Tell me about your relationship with your boss.

This question is not extremely specific, but it has enough context for the person to be able to answer the question in any way they want to. It also isn’t bias towards a side, allowing the participant to tell their story on the issue. In other words, it aims to not seek judgment and there is less implication that there might be something wrong with the relationship.

Here is an example of a leading question:

Do you have any problems with your boss?

This question prompts the person to question their employment relationship. In a subtle way it raises the prospect that there are problems.

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So the next time you feel the need to ask a leading question, you want users to answer on their own. It’s okay to push them to talk more, whether it’s saying “can you tell me more” or “why did x…”. By asking leading questions, you are affecting their answers and encouraging false or inaccurate information by misleading them. It’s not honest and can cause bias which can be detrimental to the overall design. In the UX design field, our goal should be to discourage bias and address the users needs.

Reassure your interviewees

In the beginning of any usability study, I make sure my participants feel comfortable before the actual interview begins. That way, they know what will be expected of them and It will be much easier guide them if they get stuck. An interview is a two way street.

I also tell my participants that it’s okay to say whatever they want or do something as though I wasn’t in the room with them. In other words, tell them that there are no right or wrong answers. Though they may not verbally say it, users want to be reassured and know that whatever they are doing is okay. Emphasize that their answers will not be judged and you will see how your participants behave as though you weren’t ever there to observe them in the first place.

Observe then intervene if necessary

If something happens where your participant begins to do something unrelated to the study, such as exiting a web page they were supposed to be on or doing something that isn’t part of the research protocol, it is okay to nudge them and help them get back on track. This could be directing them to the task they need to do or repeating instructions. The fact that they were doing something different is an potential insight or not part of the overall study. In the end, it is up to your judgement whether or not your data is valid and adds value to the study.

Ideally, you want to observe people as though they were doing every day tasks. You do not want to tell them they are wrong or what they are doing wasn’t right. You also don’t want to explicitly tell them what you want them to do, but instead have them find that out on their own to understand their behavior.

Be patient

Don’t rush your users. Listen to whatever they say or do. The time in which a user takes to do something can reveal a lot about the efficiency of something which plays a big part in making a good product. Even the smallest action they do can speak volumes than the things they say.

Be clear with your directions

Though this may be obvious for us, the participant doesn’t know what they need to do if we present them with a task they need to complete, or a web page we want them to navigate through. We need to tell them as concisely as possible what they need to do, whether this is speaking out loud when evaluating a web-page or performing tasks as though we weren’t there to moderate them. For the participant, this gives them clarity for what they need to do and for us, it gives us more “accurate” results in context to the goals of the study.

Because you are essentially creating an environment to gather information or test something, you need to have time to explain to your participants what’s going on. By providing context, you are making it easier for your users to effectively listen to directions and provide you with insightful answers.

Troubleshoot before not during

Sometimes technical issues may affect the fluidity of a study which wastes time for both you and the participant. You want to test your study (i.e. pilot studies) before the actual study happens in order to alleviate any issues that may happen during the study in order to focus your time on the participant and gathering valuable data. Technical issues which happen during the study affect your focus and skew your results.

Conclusion

Users who have taken their time to participate in your study need to be a part of your study as much as possible. This is what leads to good insights and human empathy. There are certain things not to do which could lead to a biased study or even a study which lacks rich insight because you weren’t thoughtful enough with your participants or your research. Even the smallest things count.

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