You’ve probably had some exposure to UX research at one time or another.
And you probably know at least the basic ideas of how to interview people and test designs.
But with the 100’s of research methods to choose from, and such a high standard set by the many amazing UX researchers we’ve come across online and in our careers, it can be overwhelming (and a little intimidating) to think about getting out there and giving it a try for ourselves.
I’ve been there, and I can honestly say, the road to mastery (or at least competency) is a lot easier than you might imagine.
As designers, we’re perfectionists. We want to do everything correctly and to the best of our ability. But when we approach this skill the same way that we’d approach a design project. With a beginner’s mindset and the willingness to experiment and iterate. We can start learning from customers in no time.
By understanding the principles that underpin UX research, along with the key processes and methods, you can fast-track your way to a reasonable level of competence, so you can have the confidence to get out there and reap the rewards of interacting with your users.
In this article, I’ll share some actionable tips on how to start practicing user research immediately, along with some key principles that underpin all types of user research.
How to Overcome the Fear of Conducting Your Own User Research
If you’re new to UX Research, or you’ve never been given the right level of support and guidance, then taking that first step to get out there and do it on your own can be a daunting task.
It can feel like there’s so much to learn, and the stakes are high. It costs a lot of time and money, so what if you mess up, make some mistakes, and don’t get the quality results you’re after?
Will other designers criticize your lack of experience? Will the business decision to no longer invest in UX research? or what if you just find talking to customers downright awkward?
For self-taught people, without the right mentorship. These thoughts are natural and completely valid. Putting yourself out there to try something new always comes with a certain amount of nervousness and anticipation.
But like anything else, including the dreaded public speaking, the only way to gain experience, is to start practicing the methods and techniques.
Although with a field as broad as user research, where do you begin?
I’ve been on this exact journey, I didn’t have great mentoring around user experience research, and because I was relatively senior, these were skills that I was embarrassed to have not yet mastered.
I had to take the long road and get out there and figure it out on my own. Recently I got feedback from some of my readers suggesting that many people are having the same experience.
(By the way, most of my topics on this website are inspired by conversations with my readers. If you want to share your own experiences to help inspire my content plan, feel free to fill out this survey.)
People know how important it is to be speaking to customers, they’ve even had some opportunities to get out there and do it, but without support and encouragement from someone who’s been there and done it, it’s sometimes easier to avoid these opportunities than to jump in and get it done.
Well, I wanted to take this opportunity to share the exact steps I took to overcome this massive hurdle.
By following the steps in this article, I was able to go from someone who knew a lot about theory but was too scared to put it into practice, to someone who can spin up research activities at the drop of a hat to get quality insights fast, through deep and thoughtful interactions with customers.
Here is what you need to know to get up and running with UX Research:
- There are some basic principles that underpin all types of UX Research.
- There are processes and artifacts that are used across all types of UX Research.
- You can practice most of these skills internally with your teammates.
- Overpreparing for user research (as a beginner) is a good way to get confident.
- Experience comes from practice, so start small and work your way up.
Rather than learning the specifics of every single research method, you can gain competence fairly quickly by learning the broad strokes, key principles, and activities that are consistent across all types of user research.
You can then start to practice the most popular methods, gain valuable experience, identify opportunities to improve and fill in the gaps along the way.
As designers, we have a tendency to be perfectionists, we want to do everything correctly all the time. But, if you’re goal is to master a skill, sometimes it’s better to channel our iterative and experimental nature and get out there and learn the same way that we would approach the exploration of a design project.
How to Gain Confidence and Experience Before Doing Formal Research
Luckily for us, the skills needed to be a great user researcher, are the kind of skills that we can practice inside our organizations with team members and stakeholders.
We can spin up projects internally, we can play games with our teammates, or take courses and practice a UX research method on side projects.
Here’s a list of things you can be doing to practice your research skills in a safe environment:
- Practice by taking on an internal project to improve a process: Speak with your manager and let them know that you want to practice your user experience research skills. Ask them to help you identify a process that needs improving internally. Use the project to practice writing a research plan, interviewing stakeholders, synthesizing findings, and presenting recommendations.
- Practice interviewing teammates and stakeholders: Find an excuse to interview stakeholders and teammates, then synthesize the findings and present them back to the team. I did this by setting myself the research objective of trying to understand how people around the organization perceived the design team and learning how much they know about design. My team was very interested in my findings, and we used them to redesign our design capability plan for the year.
- Run guerilla testing sessions with people within your business: A guerilla test is simply a quick informal usability test with people who are not your target users but who are willing to participate. They can be useful as quick ad-hoc sense checks on your design work. But they can also be useful to help you practice planning and conducting user tests. Run a guerilla usability test on something you working on, or run the test on a core task on your live product.
- Practice facilitation by running creative workshops with your team: Designers love playing design games. Put your hand up to host a design team meeting and use it as a chance to practice your facilitation skills. Start small and run a team brainstorming activity, work your way up to an ideation session, try out the d.school wallet redesign exercise, or invent something of your own.
- Do a card sort activity with your team for fun: Knowing how to run card sorts is a very useful activity that not everyone gets many chances to get involved in. You can prepare a fun, game-style card sort to play with your team. Or, you could deconstruct the IA of your existing product and get your team to re-organize it just for fun.
- Take a course or shadow a more experienced researcher: And finally, I strongly advise taking a course and shadowing a more experienced researcher if you get the chance. The best way to learn is to have someone experienced to show you the ropes, but as this article attempts to tackle, that isn’t always an option.
These tips can help you practice some skills and build the confidence you need to start practicing UX research on real users to get valuable insights to direct your design decisions.
There’s no replacement for hands-on experience. And even if that means making some mistakes, practicing in a safe environment, and taking your time. In the end, it’s well worth it as a UX Designer.
The Foundational Principles That Underpin All User Research
Before jumping in and practicing your skills in a safe environment. It’s worth taking a look at some of the core principles that underpin almost all types of user research.
These are ideas that you’ll need to take into account whether you’re running user interviews, conducting usability tests, or running focus groups to screen concepts.
- Having clear research goals and questions: All research activities are designed around a central, accurately articulated design research question. Defining exactly what you want to learn in advance of even choosing a research method is incredibly important. When you can accurately describe what you want to learn from your research, you can design the whole activity with focus and purpose.
- Choosing the best research method: Often, it’s a good idea – if time and budget allow – to use a mix of research methods. This helps us to get a well-rounded view of the situation we want to understand. But, in reality, we rarely get this opportunity. So knowing when to use surveys vs user interviews vs usability tests can help you get to the point a lot quicker.
- Recruiting the right participants: The participants you choose to include in your user research need to be representative of your actual users. Figure out who your primary user groups are and recruit people that meet the criteria of those groups. It’s also good to include a diverse mix of people within those groups, so you’re not only hearing the perspectives of a narrow band of people. Try to include people who are culturally and linguistically diverse, as well as people of all abilities.
- Active listening and open-ended questions: As researchers, our goal is to listen. Listen carefully and listen well. It’s actually more difficult than it sounds when starting out. Practice active listening, removing your own ideas from the conversation and centering your questions around your research objectives.
- Going broad but staying focused on the goals: When speaking to users in any kind of format, it’s important to learn about their experiences relating to the topic we’re researching, but often for them, the context is much more complex and goes beyond our app or website. It’s useful to let them go broad, so you can understand their world more fully, but be conscious of when you’ve strayed too far from the design research topic.
- Recognizing biases, assumptions, and leading: We all have biases, but what makes a great user researcher is that, firstly they’re experienced in recognizing when biases are creeping in, and they have systems in place to counteract them. Whenever you feel yourself steering a conversation towards something you’ve preconceived, take note and actively open the topic back up. It’s also useful to have a partner in your research studies so you can check your findings against theirs.
- Taking an iterative approach: As is everything in life, research is an iterative approach. At the beginning of a project is when we know the least, so don’t be worried if you can’t nail your research objective right away, or if you aren’t exactly sure who your users are. Just get started with your best guess and as you learn, make improvements along the way.
- UX Research is a critical part of any design process, user feedback and evidence from the real world are essential to get high-value research findings.
- Research insights help inform any design decision and provide insight into the experiences our research participants have related to our design challenge.
- This kind of market research is important in any design thinking or user centered design methodology as it helps us to understand real user behavior.
- Some of the more popular research methods are, user testing, the focus group, the user interview, and ab testing.
- Qualitative research should be mixed with quantitative research to give us a well-rounded view of user needs to help us create an effective product design.