Knowing your goal, agreeing on the big questions and identifying your research methods.

User research is about working with teams to understand who users are, where they are, what they do and what they need.

As with all other aspects of user research, you’ll need the guidance of a professional to begin with. Time, experience and training will enable you to develop your own skills.

Read more about what user research is.

Know your goal

Start with a clear, shared goal for the research. Make sure you know why you’re doing the research and how you can apply it. Good research only takes you so far — to have impact and be worthwhile it needs to be relevant and usable by your team.

At each stage of design the goals of the research and methods used will vary, but will usually fall into one of the following broad aims:

  • understanding potential users and their lives
  • working out what the team should be designing and building
  • testing what the team have designed to find issues

Your goal to start with might be as simple as ‘we need to understand the perspective of people who are not us’. Be clear about how you might use the insight that you gather, particularly if it’s not what you expected to find. Having a goal will help you understand what you need to know — then you can start planning how you’ll find this out.

Agree on the big questions

You have to know your research question before you can choose how to answer it. Asking the wrong question won’t give you what you need.

The research question is the big question that you want to know, not what you ask in an interview. Often, you’ll use more than one method to explore the question.

Start with your high-priority questions. These are the big assumptions that the team are making, or the things you don’t know that carry the most risk if you’re wrong. To figure this out, you need to first establish what you do know about your users, and then identify the gaps in your knowledge.

Planning user research begins with considering what evidence you already have to answer these questions:

  • who are the users?
  • what are the user groups?
  • what do you already know about their behaviours, goals, motivations and needs?
  • what assumptions have you made about them?

Review any existing research and develop a good understanding of who your users are, and what you already know about them. This may be based on knowledge within your organisation. For example, data that you collect about who uses your service and anecdotal evidence from members of staff. It can be also be found by doing desk research. You should find out:

  • what user data your organisation already has
  • what recent user research your organisation may have done that could still be relevant
  • what data you may have access to from other research organisations

This is the first step in identifying the gaps in your knowledge. This information will define what to do next. Your research questions will start broad in the early stages of design, but they’ll evolve and focus quickly as you learn.

Identifying research methods

Asking your research question directly will not help you learn anything. People often don’t know or are unwilling to admit to their true behaviours, and can be good at making up answers.

Once you know the big questions, spend time working out what approach you’ll take to answering them. How will you explore these questions with users?

You can choose from a range of methods when doing user research, but you’ll learn that most of them work only at particular times and for particular purposes. Choosing the right method only takes you so far. User research is a skill that takes training and practice to do it properly.

When deciding what research activity will be most relevant, consider:

  • how can you gather the best possible range of evidence?
  • how much time do you have and what is your budget?
  • who on the team is available to provide support?
  • what skills do you have available in your team?

Gathering multiple sources of evidence from different methods will help you and the team become confident in the validity of the research.

Collect, make sense of and communicate evidence in a clear way so that other people in the team and organisation understand the work that is being undertaken and why.

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