There’s a Better Way to Plan User Research

Have you ever found yourself overwhelmed by the sheer number of user research methods out there? Do you ever feel like people are constantly inventing new, innovative research methods and you are so lost as to how they got there? Yeah, that was me—and still is sometimes.

In the UX field, we have truly expanded what it means to do user research. We can customize pretty much any method to collect the most valuable insights and pain points. However, this presents us with a new problem. With a plethora of options at our disposal, how do we decide what we need for our research? How do we ensure that we understand our users in the best way—within the right timeframe, and to yield the most valuable results?

Over the years, I’ve picked up some tried-and-true methods to filter through the myriad choices to hone in on only the elements that will yield the results you want. In this article, you can learn how to do the same so your next user research planning process won’t be so overwhelming.

Your Relationship with User Research

Chances are, you learned about user research in one of three ways: in an educational format where you get to use it on a few projects, on the job—whether someone teaches you or you get thrown into the deep end, or (my personal favorite) you “research how to research” and learn about the past and present best practices.

Most realistically, a lot of us probably got a mixture of the three learning methods. However you learned about user research, you probably realized quickly that there were 1,001 methods you could use—from user interviews, observations sessions, and surveys, to personas, journey maps, and all-day workshops. But every time you need to do user research, you have unique goals, users, time frames, tools, and constraints that you need to account for. How are you supposed to know what method will work best given all those unique factors?

With so many options to choose from it can feel like you are trying to find a needle in a haystack. What is the right user research method (needle) to select from the multitude of other methods (haystack)? Fortunately, there isn’t just one needle; the haystack is easier to sift through than you think. The steps below will outline several ways to find a method that aligns with your specific needs and goals.

Step 1: Establish your needs

Before you start this adventure, establish a baseline of why you are doing user research. Answering these general questions before you begin will give you a solid foundation for finding a user research method that works for you:

  1. What are you hoping to learn about?
  2. What drove you to need research?
  3. Are there any constraints? (things like, users, time, tools, etc.)
  4. What is the priority of this research?
  5. Do you have or need a budget?

Here’s an example of common situations I’ve seen in my experience doing user research:

  1. We are hoping to learn more about how users locate information on our website because…
  2. Our tracking analytics reported very few clicks to our search bar and our stakeholders want to get rid of it so our developers can focus on building and fixing other, more useful features on the website.
  3. We have a stable base of users we can communicate with, but we also need to communicate with their bosses before asking them to dedicate work time to this research to avoid user burnout. We only have about a week before the decision will be made so this needs to happen quickly. We already have a set list of tools that our company uses and there won’t be time to look for new or specific tools for this research.
  4. This is a high priority since we only have a week to conduct our research and highlight our insights and suggestions to our stakeholders.
  5. We don’t anticipate any costs related to this research since we already have access to a set of tools and a dedicated user base.

Step 2: Sift through the myriad of user research methods

Now that you have established a foundation for why you are doing user research, it’s time to narrow your method options. Below are some core categories that define what type of research you might need, along with examples that would fit within each category:

  • Conversation (user interviews, focus groups): This category focuses on how you can pull insights and findings from having conversations with users, no matter the format.
  • Collaboration (focus groups, workshops, brainstorming sessions): This category focuses on how users can interact with other users through conversations or activities to identity insights or pain points they might have.
  • Observation (video ethnography, contextual inquiry, fly-on-the-walls): This category is focused on how you, as a researcher, can learn from your users without interacting with them. You simply observe them to better understand their flows, needs, and pain points.
  • Interaction (A/B testing, paper prototyping, usability testing): This category is focused on how users interact with a test, product, or activity so that researchers can identity insights and pain points observed.
  • Generative (personas, user journeys, mind mapping, wireflows): This category is focused on how researchers can create and showcase a user so that everyone can easily understand the user’s needs and pain points.

Based on the example answers from step 1:

  • We are looking for something we can do quickly and analyze efficiently.
  • We want to learn more about how users locate information on the website, which leads to a direction of conversations so that we can hear user stories and get a holistic picture of how they navigate through the website.
    • Alternatively, we could have also gone with a navigation test (interaction) and observed how they navigated through the site to complete their tasks.
  • Chosen category: Conversation

Side notes:

  1. Some methods can fit into more than one category (like focus groups).
  2. You can always have a primary/secondary category depending on your needs. Remember that it’s supposed to be what works best for your user research.

Step 3: Find the methods that work for you

After establishing your foundation and understanding the core category that might work best, you can start to see the best shape and form for your user research to gain valuable insights and pain points.

From there, you can research on your own or collaborate/brainstorm with your teammates to find the specific method that works for you. When you are evaluating what methods might work well for you, these thought-provoking questions can help you narrow your choices:

  • How much time and effort will this take to prepare?
  • What specific goals would I have if I chose this method?
  • If we conduct this research, are we going to get the right type of valuable results we need?
  • How might this information help us in the future?

Building on the example from steps 1 and 2:

  • We chose to conduct user interviews, however we specified that we will also be sharing the current prototype with them so that in parallel, we can listen to their stories and observe their navigation habits.
  • Since our research goal was broad enough to include how users locate information throughout the whole site, we might be able to utilize this research in the future if we have questions around any other specific type of navigation from the site.

Ready to Plan Your Own User Research?

User research doesn’t have to be complex, scary, or frustrating. There are several ways to find a method that works for your specific needs—and I hope this article will help you identify the methods that will work best for you. Happy researching!

Want more insights in user research? Check out our downloadable template for specific guidelines on user research.

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