3 phases of user research

Our User Research panel discussion last night was great. We had a very engaged audience of 50+ people. There were a ton of questions coming at research from different angles, from the conceptual to the practical.

Luckily for you, I wasn’t on the panel, so you didn’t have to hear me blather on about my approach to research. BUT! That panel and other discussions I’ve had with mkeUX community members lately have sent some research-related topics swirling around my head. And given that I’m one of the organizers of mkeUX, I have the power to blog here so you can read my blatherings about my approach to research.

Sorry to put you in this awkward position, but thank you for getting this far.

The 3 phases
For this post I want to outline the 3 Phase approach that I’ve been focusing my user research approach around for the past few years: Contextual inquiry → Design feedback sessions → Usability testing. I want to explain the what’s and why’s of the different research methodologies and help show how I string them together to create a kind of research continuum. For people who are just getting into research or who are looking for a more comprehensive research toolkit, this breakdown may be helpful. It’s worked pretty well for me so far.


Phase 1
Methodology: Contextual inquiry
What it is: Job shadowing users as they go about their normal daily routines. Observe and record what they say and do, and ask in-context clarifying questions.
Why it’s done: To get a deeper understand of users’ journeys and identify design opportunities.
When it’s done: Early in the ideation phase, before design begins. Contextual inquiry can be used to build personas and archetypes, and to generally help project teams and stakeholders get a common, nuanced understanding of who they’re creating a product for.
Other names: Ethnographic research, job shadowing

Phase 2
Methodology: Design feedback session
What it is: Sharing early stage iterative product or feature designs with users. (Early stage can mean sketches, wireframes, or rough prototypes.) Walk users through the concepts and ask probing questions.
Why it’s done: To poke holes in the design so it can be reworked by the design team and then presented again for another round of user feedback. It helps vet design approaches before too much time or money is invested in potentially unusable designs.
When it’s done: As often as possible throughout the design process. In an Agile environment, this would mean showing concepts to several users per sprint.
Other names: Cognitive walkthrough

Phase 3
Methodology: Usability testing
What it is: Watching users as they interact hands-on with a living, working product. Create realistic scenarios and tasks to get users to engage with the product. Ask open-ended, contextual questions and watch for emotional/physical responses to their experiences.
Why it’s done: To discover problems in a product as a user interacts directly with it, and to help uncover organic, user-centric resolutions to those problems.
When it’s done: For a new product, usability testing is the final, critical research step before launching a new product (after going through the other research phases listed above). For an existing product, usability testing helps identify and prioritize areas of improvement before the embarking a redesign.
Other names: Usability study


Making it even better
My goal in writing these is to have clearly-worded descriptions of these methodologies that can be understood by a general audience (non-techy, non-UXy, non-designy). 

A few questions for you:

  • How do you explain these steps to the people you work with and for?
  • How can we demystify the stages of user research in order to get people more vested in investing in it?
  • What do you differently?

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

30. September 2015 by Michael Seidel
Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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