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Research? But we know our users!

Dr. Verena Rheinstädter Senior UX Researcher • Solution Expert User Research & Qualitative Methods

16/11/2020 • 6 minutes reading time

To understand users, their behavior, prior knowledge and needs, two proven methodological approaches can be distinguished: observation in a situational context and conducting interviews. This may sound easy — yet by no means is it trivial, as some may believe. That is why we have specially trained colleagues in this field who are well versed in the methods of user research.

One things is clear: User research is indispensable for truly aligning design with the needs of users in design that is user centered. For only if (future) users are actually involved in the design process can we ensure that an application fits the identified needs and is easy to use. In the event that user research is neglected in the course of a project, the concept is based on untested assumptions and runs the risk of being designer-centric rather than user-centric: Even UX designers are not immune to self-referential design.

Compared to traditional user research, service design goes a step further and involves not only users but also all other stakeholders within the company in the research and design process to develop a holistic solution. More details on service design and strategy are available here.

What research can achieve

User researchers play a key role in UX projects because they ensure that the concepts are developed on an evidence-driven (or put in modern terms: data-driven) basis. In order to test assumptions about users, their experience, the system, or the application context during a project, user researchers rely on methodological knowledge to formulate hypotheses:

  • How prospective users interact with a system.

  • Which challenges they (may) encounter.

  • Which Pain Points arise and how they can be avoided.

  • Which parameters can be used to test the hypotheses.

To properly and correctly verify hypotheses, suitable methods must be selected and applied. We present an extract of methods that help to better understand user behavior in the following:


Selection and combination

Depending on the project phase, UX professionals are confronted with different questions.
At the start, it is often a matter of gaining a precise understanding of the user (groups), the context of use, the work objectives and the corresponding requirements and needs, as well as discovering new possibilities. Job shadowing in combination with interviews is especially well-suited for this purpose. Concepts and design can be checked using Usability tests and iteratively adapted based on user feedback in order to improve product quality and acceptance.

Simply “asking" in a non-application-related situation is often not sufficient. For there is a discrepancy between what people do and what they claim or believe they do. In that circumstance, observing concrete behavior can help to understand everyday use. That is why professional methods are so vital when it comes to obtaining reliable evidence for hypotheses.

Usability und UX testings

In a usability test, participants perform typical (work) tasks with a system. Our researchers accompany this test and ask specific questions. This way, we gain deeper insights that allow us to derive concrete approaches for improvement from current behavior.

Users do not always have to be on site for a usability test; remote surveys are also possible. An illustrative article on “Agile remote testing and candidate recruitment” for tests is available here.

In a usability test, UX researchers act both as moderators and observers. During implementation, it is often of great benefit if the responsible designers - and possibly also the stakeholders on the customer side - are involved and can thus directly understand the application through the users’ eyes.

Context analyses

While usability tests often take place in the controlled environment of a laboratory and based on pre-structured tasks, context analyses are carried out in the actual situational application context. This means that work is carried out on site, where the software will later be used. While an interview guide is often used to structure the conversation and observations, the method is based on the idea that UX researchers act as students and learn from the participants. In that way, our researchers obtain detailed and well-founded information on aspects such as the (work) environment, workarounds, artifacts or interactions with colleagues.

Inspection methods

... such as cognitive walkthroughs or heuristic evaluations do not necessarily involve the actual users in the design process but should be carried out by people who are very familiar with the domain and are thus in a position to adopt the most authentic user perspective possible. The findings of this method can be quantified by dividing them into categories and levels of severity.

Interview-based methods - such as focus groups, context analyses and usability testing - provide qualitative, i.e. non-numerical data. Ideally, different methods are combined to achieve a deeper understanding. Therefore, for example, we often ask participants to fill out a standardized survey at the end of a usability test session and then check whether the results point in the same direction or interpret deviations based on comprehensive benchmarks.
In a customer test we discovered some erratic findings; nevertheless, the SUS score (System Usability Scale, a quantitative survey method) of the software had excellent results. The customer hence went live with the product as planned, as no significant experience drops were to be expected, and he subsequently optimized the design.