User research and user-driven data strategy are the buzzwords of market trend predictions issued by giants like Forrester Research and the Harvard Business Review. Data about users, their environment, needs, attitudes can inform business decisions and drive product strategy. But what exactly does user research entail? To many in the business realm, research is a vague concept and covers activities from searching for information online and interviewing people to administering surveys and maybe even performing usability tests. It is understandable that business professionals rarely have a scope of knowledge and appreciation for the methods and tools at the disposal of a trained user researcher. Yet, precisely for this reason stakeholders should leave the research strategy in the hands of an expert rather than lock the research team into a specific method of data collection.
Research methods employed to shed light on how to target business goals come from a range of disciplines such as human factors, psychology, sociology, business management, marketing, and so on. While a list of these methods and their descriptions can span pages, technique flavors and intricacies are likely to be of little interest to a stakeholder (and, hence, are not included in this post). What is important, however, is that each method has its own pros and cons, and affords different kinds of insights. Thus, a data collection strategy should be chosen by the researcher only after evaluating business objectives, project scope, budget, resources and time available to carry out the research (such as access to users and technology needed for testing), and weighing the pros and cons of each method in light of these considerations. A good strategy combines various techniques in order to offset the cons of each by their pros, gather converging evidence and maximize insights to drive future decisions. Let’s consider how this plays out in a couple of scenarios.
Imaginary Company wants to visually freshen up their e-commerce website and increase order conversion rates; that is, while customers add many items to the shopping cart, some orders are never completed. To help Imaginary Company meet its objectives, designers can use their experience and best practices to change shadows, colors, fonts and other details on pages. However, data should inform all decisions to change page layouts or navigation through the website. After all, design first and foremost must serve a specific function. If Imaginary Company has only a week to gather user insights that would then inform website re-design, the research strategy could consist of website analytics, heuristic evaluation, content analysis, and maybe even a guerilla usability test.
In this example, website analytics will reveal the point at which website visitors stop placing an order or leave the website. For example, many users might quit on the registration page if it asks too many questions that users consider irrelevant. A click pattern analysis can also indicate what areas and buttons users do and do not interact with. A heuristic evaluation, where the website is evaluated for usability problems based on recognized principles, will reveal design flaws that contribute to the user experience that hinders customers from registering or placing orders on the website. A focused content analysis, driven by insights from website analytics, can reveal inconsistencies between instructions, descriptions, and error messages that users are exposed to. Finally, if time affords a guerilla usability test, some users can be asked to place an order on the website. Here the researcher can learn not only about how the user feels, but also gather insights about what affects the user experience in positive and negative ways. Executed in a short period of time, these combined methods will reveal particular issues with the layout of various website pages, registration procedures, and highlight areas for improvement that will then allow designers to focus their expertise and tools on addressing business objectives of the Imaginary Company.
A Fictional Business sets out to implement a solution that should help warehouse forklift operators complete work orders more efficiently and thus reduce overall operating costs. When a couple of weeks are available for user research, contextual inquiry, interviews, and task analyses can be conducted to gather solution requirements. Contextual inquiry will allow researchers to observe forklift operators in the context of their work, identify specific processes and task steps, how long tasks take currently, what tools are used, who the operators interact with, how often, for what reasons and why. Insights from a contextual inquiry can help focus the interview process, allowing the researcher to further probe how user experience is affected by various components in their work environment. Finally, task analyses break tasks into subtasks and specific steps at a very fine level of detail allowing the team to discover areas for improvement. Together, these methods can reveal the overall processes in the warehouse that currently contribute to limited efficiency of forklift operators, identify bottlenecks in procedures, points of frustration for workers which can be addressed by a designed solution.
Armed with these user insights, designers can determine what kind of solutions, including technology, user interfaces, and process changes would meet the objectives of the Fictional Business. For example, if forklift operators spend an unreasonable amount of time filling out paperwork as they are completing work orders, a potential solution could entail digital document filing on a mobile tablet, where form fields are automatically populated based on the location of the forklift and various products in the warehouse, time of day, who the user of the tablet is and so on.
When engaged at the start of a project, user research defines and refines a list of project requirements, allowing designers to focus their expertise and tools on addressing business objectives rather than intuitively creating a solution. Would detailed insights about how to meet goals of the Imaginary Company or the Fictional Business be possible if a survey or focus group was required as the research strategy? Perhaps some, but definitely not as focused and not at the level of depth the described alternative techniques afford.
Requiring that a particular data collection method must be used is like putting the lowest quality gasoline into a Ferrari. It will get the vehicle moving, but will not take it to its full potential and afford the driver the best possible ride. The same goes for research: dictating what methods should be used to gain user intelligence can limit the scope and the amount of information researchers can gather. Hence, list your business objectives, sit back, and let the experts collect data by their chosen methods to inform and drive your business strategy.