One of the most interesting challenges with any user-centred research activity is choosing the right research method. Deciding on the most suitable method depends on your objectives, the questions you are trying to answer and where you are in the discovery or design process. This guide will help you map your user research goals and questions to the right methods.
What is user research?
User research is about learning directly from the people who use your service or buy your products. The insight you glean from your target audience can then be used to inform your website design and digital marketing strategies moving forward.
Instead of making changes to your website based on hunches and preconceived ideas about your customers, you can use the empirical evidence you collect about their behaviours and needs to steer your decision making.
The process seems simple. Set your goals and objectives, define the questions you want to find answers to and implement the user research method of your choice to learn from real people, before turning your findings into actions.
And voila, a new and improved user-centred platform!
But user research is not a one-size-fits-all approach. You won’t be able to gain useful results if you choose a user research method that isn’t suitable for the type of questions you want to answer and the goals you’re trying to achieve.
Defining your user research goals
What is your objective, why are you carrying out this research and what questions do you want to answer? It’s important to define the purpose of your research and what success looks like. An overall goal should be set at the start of any project, and user research is no exception.
You could start by asking questions like:
- What do you want to learn from your research?
- Where are the customer pain points or blockers?
- What solutions have already been proposed?
- What research have you already done?
By answering the questions above, you’ll have a better understanding of what you’re trying to achieve. The next step is deciding and defining research focused questions. There are a number of industry frameworks you can use as templates, like Christian Rohrer’s two axes framework, Tomer Sharon’s three categories framework and Erica Hall’s user-led framework.
The questions you want your research method to answer could be quantitative or qualitative, about your users or your product, and relating to needs or functionality.
Deciding and defining your questions is equally as important as setting your goals, as your questions will become the foundation of your research. Listing the questions you want to find answers to will help guide your research.
They could be questions like:
- How can we reduce the cart abandonment rate?
- How does the user interact with 'x' feature? Are they using it the way we want them to?
- What are our audience’s behaviours, goals, motivations and needs?
- What do they think of our pricing packages?
- Are you users able to find 'y' product?
- Can users read and understand the page?
- What do people do when they land on the homepage?
Once you have set your overall goals, defined what success looks like and listed the questions you want to answer, it’s time to decide which method to use to answer each type of question.
User research methods and when to use them
There are many factors that impact your choice of user research method, for example your budget, available resources, time limitations and what phase you’re in. User research during a discovery phase with no actual product will be completely different to evaluating a prototype or design, for example.
It’s important that when choosing a method, we are led by the needs of the user rather than the method. Don’t force a method to answer a question, it will only cause more problems!
Here is a non-exhaustive list of user research methods, together with what they can help you uncover about your users. You can combine multiple methods to better understand user behaviour.
This is used to improve understanding of the customer and build empathy with them. It generally takes two forms. Dogfooding is where you become the customer by using the product or service, and bluecoating is where you become, or shadow, the employees who regularly deal with customers. These methods provide first-hand insight from different perspectives.
Best for: Finding out first-hand how customers experience products or services in order to better understand their needs.
Through direct observation of how people use your website or app, you can experience it through their eyes. This helps to identify where they encounter blockers or friction and to see if the product meets their needs. You can run user testing on a live website or during development of a new site (e.g testing with a prototype or even wireframes).
Best for: Observing how users interact with your website or app to find out where there are usability issues or areas with potential for improvement.
These involve a moderated discussion of a group of users (normally between five and ten). More widely used as a market research tool, they can also be useful for gaining a better understanding about user needs as well as their opinions about a product or service. It is a great method for sequential thinking as participants can bounce ideas and discussions off each other rather than being interviewed.
Best for: Getting a range of opinions from several members of an audience. Experiences and ideas can be discussed as a group to get a rounded view of user needs.
Run on your website, these can provide a good way of getting a large amount of feedback in a short amount of time. Tools like Hotjar and Usabilla can be used to obtain feedback from users while they interact with a website or app.
Best for: Measuring customer satisfaction and gathering large-scale quantitative feedback on your service. They can also be used to gain first-hand feedback on targeted areas of a website (e.g. asking for feedback from users who drop out during checkout).
An interactive card sorting workshop will help you design and evaluate the information architecture of a website. Individual participants or small groups organise topics into categories and label them.
Best for: Understanding how information should be grouped and arranged on your website.
This is used to evaluate a site's current navigation or a proposed solution. Users are set the task of finding information, allowing us to identify the different ways people interact with this part of the information architecture. Tree testing can be run on existing navigation or proposed navigation and follow-up tree tests are often run on updated versions of proposed navigation based on feedback from the first round of testing.
Best for: Highlighting navigation issues with new, existing or proposed sites. You are able to analyse where a user would expect to find ‘x’ and then update your navigation to meet those expectations.
Speaking to existing customers or people who match an audience profile helps to challenge or validate ideas and assumptions. Interviews involve asking users about their needs and experiences to see if these correspond to stakeholders' views and often reveal valuable new findings. These can take place at the early stages of product development all the way through to post-launch.
Best for: Getting insight into the overall relationship a user has with a product or service in order to better understand their requirements.
A way of visually mapping data in order to understand which elements users click on when they are browsing specific pages, and whether they scroll through your prototype or website to view content.
Best for: Gathering ‘hotspots’ of a user’s journey through your site. This can be in the form of a click map or scroll map, giving a visual overview of how users interact with key individual pages of the website.
When to combine user research methods
User research should not be method-led, but user-led. When it comes to choosing the right user research method, you should let the user's challenge drive the methods you choose. So if the results from your research are inconclusive, choose another research method to further investigate the issues and validate your findings. This is important when making important decisions and changes.
As an example of how methods can be combined, let’s say you are looking to understand the reason why there’s no traffic to a specific product page. You carry out user testing and find that two out of six user testing participants couldn’t navigate to this page.You want to investigate this further and find a solution, so you carry out tree testing to understand user expectations around how to navigate to this page.
The purpose of user research is to discover user patterns and reveal hidden insights. It is the most effective way to find out how people interact with and understand your products as well as highlighting pain points and where users are struggling.
User research gives a true reflection of what is relevant to the user and what they like about using your website or product, highlighting its usability performance.
It bears repeating that no user research method is one-size-fits-all. There are a lot of different methods to attack any given problem, and this guide was written to help you choose the right research method based on the goal and questions you have.
Some hints and tips to remember are:
- Set your goal first. What does success look like for you on this project?
- Define the questions you want to answer
- Be user-led, not method-led; use your questions and goals as the driver to choosing a user research method, not the other way round
- Combine methods for further validation