Research Guidelines You Won’t Find in a Textbook

By Demetrius Madrigal and Bryan McClain

Published: October 3, 2011

“There are some key principles you should keep in mind that you aren’t likely to discover in any textbook….”

We meet a lot of people who do user research, but don’t have a research background or extensive training in research. Sometimes they are UX designers or graphic artists at a company that doesn’t have researchers. Sometimes they are people in small startups who are looking for some indication of the right direction to take. Sometimes they are just people who are new to research, don’t yet have a great deal of experience, and need guidance.

If you find yourself in such a position, there are some key principles you should keep in mind that you aren’t likely to discover in any textbook or research manual. Learning any skill involves both knowledge from books and what you learn through some form of personal mentorship in which you can receive feedback on your work. Research is a complex skill, and people who are just getting started need both knowledge and guidance to gain mastery. We’ve tried to distill what we think are the most important concepts that we emphasize when we’re mentoring new researchers. They are principles that we have discovered through our years of experience, and we’ve found that they apply in all instances.

Make Friends

“Forming an understanding of the people who will be using your product is much more important than just knowing their individual thoughts on a design concept or user interface.”

Research is a social activity. Many people have a vision of researchers as stoic intellectuals in white lab coats, sitting and observing people from behind one-way mirrors. The reality is quite different. User research is a process in which you communicate with people so you can learn about their lives and their needs. In the long run, forming an understanding of the people who will be using your product is much more important than just knowing their individual thoughts on a design concept or user interface.

The only way that you’ll be able to gain this understanding is if you can put participants at ease and talk to them as real people rather then just using them as a means of improving your product. The best way to connect with participants is to take your time and get to know them as people before you dive into your research protocol. Ask them questions about their lives, their jobs, and how their day is going. You need to get to a level deeper than just superficial chitchat. You want your communication with research participants to feel like you’re talking to a good friend.

Keep in mind that you have two goals: first, to help a person feel relaxed and comfortable, so he or she will open up and communicate freely; second, to learn as much as you can about their lives. This understanding can provide invaluable insights that can help you to better form your questions, as well as interpret their answers. For example, if a person reports that he doesn’t see any value in a product and you know about his life, you can ask him about potential use cases that he may have overlooked. If someone is being vague in his answers to your questions, you’ll know how to direct him toward making a definitive statement by applying the concept to a specific example in his life.

More specifically, if you were testing a product that lets users find their parked car, but a participant mostly rides his bike and parks his car for days at a time, you might ask whether he sometimes has difficulty remembering where he’s parked his car three or four days ago. The participant might not have immediately thought about applications for this product because he doesn’t drive often, but by suggesting an important use case, you may help the participant look at the product from a different perspective. This data can inform both design and marketing strategies.

Don’t Answer Questions

“The purpose of research is to gather information, not to provide it. When people ask you questions, your instinct is to try to answer them, but you must resist this urge, because it will interfere with your ability to get accurate and actionable data.”

The purpose of research is to gather information, not to provide it. When people ask you questions, your instinct is to try to answer them, but you must resist this urge, because it will interfere with your ability to get accurate and actionable data.

I’ve seen people doing user research explain a product or user interface to a participant, including all of its features and how it operates. This prevents your having the opportunity to get a participant’s immediate reaction to the product. Instead of explaining a product’s value proposition to a participant, ask the participant What do you think this is? What do you think you would use it for? This lets you get an idea of how clearly a product conveys its concepts. If they are unclear, you can then explain the product and ask participants how you could make the ideas clearer.

When testing user interfaces, present participants with scenarios for tasks that would motivate them to try to figure out how to use the user interface properly on their own. Here’s an example: You’re moving into a new apartment, and you need to sell a couch that you aren’t going to take with you. How would you go about doing that? If a participant asks, Do I go to auctions? Don’t answer the question! Just note his response and tell him to feel free to try things. If a participant notices something in a user interface and asks you, What’s this over here? you should respond, What do you think it is? What would you expect it to be? Try to be like a therapist and always answer a question with a question.

It is more important for you to get a sense of participants’ impressions and reactions to user interface elements than for them to understand every aspect of a user interface. Try to keep in mind that customers won’t have you sitting next to them in the real world. It’s important to try to replicate that reality during research.

Don’t Try to Sell a Product

“If you point out all of the great things about a product, people will tend to agree with your opinions rather than form their own and tell you about them.”

When you’re doing research, you want to make sure you get an idea of the value that a product provides to users. In fact, conscientious researchers would recommend radically altering or even cancelling a project if they learned that users would not want it or use it. If you point out all of the great things about a product, people will tend to agree with your opinions rather than form their own and tell you about them.

As you are going through your research protocol, make sure you document participants’ natural reactions in the course of their first exposure to a product. As we mentioned earlier, try to see whether they can understand the product on their own, then examine their reaction to the product’s value proposition. You’ll tend to see a variety of reactions, ranging from This is amazing, it’s going to change my life! to I don’t think this would do anything for me at all. Be sure to obtain this information—or you could be in for a significant beating when you release your product to the market. If you identify problems early, you’ll have the opportunity to pivot before devoting any more resources to something that is unlikely to take off.

To do this successfully, you must establish your impartiality. We actually inform people that we didn’t design a product and that we are performing the research to provide an objective opinion. We also inform participants that the goal of a research study is to improve the product rather than to make sure that we are on the right track. This helps to put them into a mindset of providing constructive feedback. As a researcher, you should foster this mindset and try to avoid influencing participants.

Conclusion

“Avoid influencing participants and keep your opinions to yourself.”

In this month’s column, we’ve covered three important guidelines that you’re most likely to learn on the job rather than in a textbook or manual. The higher-order guideline is to avoid influencing participants and keep your opinions to yourself.

Remember, the most important thing to gain through user research is a deep and meaningful understanding of your potential users. This can guide you through all aspects of development, including coming up with marketing and advertising strategies.

Of course, there is much more for researchers to learn, including how to generate actionable recommendations, fit into an agile development cycle, build compelling presentations, and communicate effectively with stakeholders, but those things are often better experienced firsthand. If there are any other essential guidelines that you think should be covered, we invite you to share them with everyone in the comments.

2 Comments

Great, simple advice for people starting out with usability testing and interviewing.

The single thing I try to impress on people who are doing this for the first time is to listen and observe a lot more than they talk. If they are talking anywhere near as much as the participant, they need to shut up and listen.

But also, as I think Jared Spool says, not to be afraid to try, analyze your performance, and get better with practice.

There are some companies that can train you to do fairly decent UI research, in just a few days. Find them. You’re (probably) kidding yourself about your research skills, otherwise. Most people don’t have a prayer when it comes to “analyzing your own performance.”

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