Hitting User Research Out of the Park
April 6, 2017

Preparing for User Research Curveballs to Hit it Out of the Park

Recommendations for conducting user research with a large team

User research never goes as planned. Even if you have all your logistics in order, a clear understanding of goals and outcomes, and defined research roles, you’ll still run into unexpected challenges. All research endeavors experience at least one curveball, and that curveball might be thrown at you while on-site doing the research or afterward when attempting to distil all the learnings.

Proper planning and setup can help you not only avoid curveballs but also allow you to easily adjust when you see one coming. I’ve outlined some recommendations to help you throughout the process, ensuring your research garners insights and accomplishes your goals.

These recommendations are inspired by some recent user research we did on a multi-day project with many participants. We faced unique challenges because we had a large number of observers alongside the researchers and wanted to ensure that the entire research team, including the observers, played a role in the research and distillation. Though we focused on contextual inquiry and user interviews during our research, I’m sure many lines can be drawn to other types of user research.

Set your research team up for successful distillation.

Pre-work is just as important for distillation, especially when working with a large research team. Imagine taking your observations back to the office, trying to group them and prioritize them, but you can’t remember details or you don’t have enough data to support insights! This can be very disheartening. Set rules and expectations up front for the research team to ensure that notes and observations are as efficient and useful as possible. Creating categories for notes before going on-site will help observers and researchers bucket their observations to help remember details and save time during distillation.

Focus your approach and your script, based on your strategy.

Setting context during user research can be a tricky thing, especially during contextual inquiry. On the one hand, you want to make sure you’re not influencing or biasing your participant. On the other, you want to make sure that the time spent with them was useful and insightful.

It’s a balance. Contextual inquiry typically requires as little interference from the researcher as possible but ensuring that you get valuable, relevant information and insights is just as important. Ultimately, it depends on the project, time allotted, and what happens in-the-moment. Provide context for your participant at an appropriate level: explicitly sharing, providing minimal details or somewhere in between. Ensure the entire research team is consistent and maintains a suitable level of information so that you’re not introducing biases into your research. Remember, you can always give your participant more information, but you can’t take it away.

Share the weight by appointing your team to represent participants.

For the distillation of our research, we had 23 participants to account for. After 3 days of research and so many interviews, it was hard to sift through all the insights and learnings. By identifying an “owner” for each research participant, we were able to have someone in the room represent and explain their selected participant’s pain points and journey. Assigning researchers some homework after each research to ensure they recall key insights can help them be an effective user/customer representative.

Keep your plan open to change direction.

Preparation is always necessary, but be careful that you don’t get so wrapped up in the planning that when things have to change, and they will, you won’t be hurt. Being open to shifting your approach is part of what makes research successful. Recognize when you need to tweak your approach to get to the heart of motivations or revise your interview strategy to ensure you validate assumptions. Be open and trust your research team to adapt on the fly.

Of course, one of the most important parts of research preparation is training the research team to put aside assumptions and be open to learning. But you can’t learn or be proven wrong if you don’t set your team up for success, set your participant up for success, be organized for distillation and prepared to change directions as needed.

Even though research will throw you curveballs, it is a vital part of any successful business or product. Ensuring you’re prepared (and prepared to pivot!) will help you achieve success and walk away with usable, relevant insights.


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