14 Tips to get your started in UX Research

One of the most valuable and worthwhile activities we can get stuck into at DNV GL is UX research. As designers and developers we always strive to make the best product we can, but in the deep and technical worlds of tidal turbines and solar plants, our biggest problem is more often than not, understanding just what it is our users need. Not that we have a shortage  – many of our product’s users work with us in the same building, but despite this it can still be very difficult for a software team to get a solid, shared understanding of who uses the product, what for and how they think. I have seen many hours and product specs wasted as teams struggle to agree what we need to build.

Enter the UX researcher, a pivotal role for someone who knows how to engage with people, uncover their needs – even ones they may not realise themselves – then translate and convey this back to the developers. Some of our most noticeable breakthroughs in the past year have been as a direct result of UX research, but there’s only so much one man can do. I was delighted therefore, when recently two developers expressed interest in learning to carry out research themselves. With a bit of practice, there was no reason the guys couldn’t be getting the information they needed themselves, without relying on me. I hoped they might be the first of many.

I arranged a crash course in user research techniques, covering a range of the most common practices and when to apply them. Most importantly, I explained how to conduct yourself in an interview or testing situation so as to get the most out of it. Real skill will of course come with practice, but for the developers in my team this was a useful first step and gave them confidence to try things for themselves.

I wrote out 14 top tips for conducting yourself when the opportunity arises to conduct some informal research. Bear these in mind, and you’re halfway there already.

1. Put people at ease
We want honest, candid feedback, and as best as possible to see how people use the product in a natural way. A few minutes at the start chatting and helping people relax can make all the difference.

2. Set the scene
Explain clearly what your goals are and be direct. Don’t assume anyone else understands software jargon or is familiar with your project. Later on, it will help to refer back to these goals you mentioned here.

3. Go with a plan, not a script
Write out what you want to find out and questions to ask, as a reminder to yourself. What do you want to learn? Be prepared to go with the flow however, when surprises happen, as they will. Learning to be flexible and change things on the fly will come with experience.

4. Users are experts
You’re there to listen and appreciate your user’s point of view. Treat them as an expert and ask their advice, as people always like to be asked and information will be forthcoming.

5. Be impartial
A difficult thing for many designers. I often state at the beginning that I’ve had limited involvement in the design and that users can be candid with me. People need to feel that it’s ok to not like something, and no’one will be offended if they speak their mind.

6. Criticism is great
Stop defending your product and instead be open to criticism, which is going to help you in the long run. If something isn’t right, it’s far, far better to know early when you can do something about it.

7. Open, not loaded questions
A common mistake. Choose the wording of your questions carefully, avoid pushing your preconceptions on to others and instead invite users to form their own answers. Open questions are far more likely to enable the discovery of new things.

8. Probe with ‘why’ and ‘how?’
When something interesting happens and you want to know more, then ask. A simple ‘why did you do that?’ or ‘what are you thinking now?’ are often enough to uncover more detailed information.

9. Keep it on track
Time is precious and sometimes your user will need gentle nudges to keep the conversation on track. If you’ve set the scene well at the beginning, you can always refer back to the goals you stated and be clear about what’s relevant. That said, don’t be too strict and stay open to new things that you didn’t expect.

10. Ask to be shown, not just told
It’s almost always preferable to see people use the product for yourself. You will see things that they didn’t think were important or forgot to mention. You’ll also find things more memorable and easier to understand having had this context.

11. Look out for unspoken things
A good researcher will also spot unspoken but important things. What people say and do can often be very different, and can’t rely purely on what’s said.

12. Travel and document light
Try to be a fly on the wall and disrupt people’s environment as little as possible. Facilitating and note-taking at the same time are difficult, so find a way to take short, efficient notes. Get out from behind a laptop screen if possible and look people in the eye, you want to engage them and keep them at ease.

13. Write up when fresh
You’ll forget quickly, so write up as soon as possible and summarise your findings before moving on to other work.

14. Concise, shareable conclusions
Your research is in vain unless others can understand and act on your recommendations, so consider your audience and give them concise feedback. Include visuals and video to keep things real and engaging, but bear in mind your audience has limited time so you need to get to the point quickly.

Matt Corrall