UX research for the rest of us

I’m constantly reading, working to learn from the experience of others. Lately I’ve been looking for a few new books to learn more from the UX “masters”. But most UX books are written for people working in giant companies or on funded “lean” startup teams.

What about the rest of us? The people working on teams of 5 or fewer, even solo, and projects with budgets of less than a quarter million, even down to the lower 5 digits? Teams of people and clients unversed in “agile” and “lean”?

Guessing isn’t UX

For smaller projects, we’re left with books on user-centered visual design. But before design, how do you decide what even gets considered for inclusion on a particular page/view? Much less what the website/app must do and deliver overall to be successful?

From what I’ve seen (and done, yes), the client and designer just guess what the user wants. But think about it: if we just guessed what our clients wanted when they hired us, how would that go? We at least talk over the scope (job to be done) and deliverables (immediate outcome) with them. And hopefully a lot more!

Unless the client is the only user, if we want to make a project a great success, we must find out what matters to their customers, the end users.

You’ll find that the place where magic happens is the place where what matters to our clients intersects with what matters to their customers.

What do we need to know?

The more we know about our clients’ customers the better prepared we’ll be to design a great experience for them. But the key things are:

  1. A basic profile/persona of the “average” customer
  2. The jobs they use our client’s products/services to get done
  3. The outcomes/value they want from the products/services
  4. Any obstacles they face to getting the desired outcomes/value from the products/services

We specifically need to know the answers to these questions as they relate to the piece of the client’s products/services we are being hired to work on.

So how can we find out what our clients’ customers want? And let’s not kid ourselves, it better be fast and cheap!

How to find out what customers want

If we’re looking for answers to our key questions, the place to look is – you guessed it – the customer.

In as little as 2 hours, and no more than 2-3 days of work, you can learn a tremendous amount about what matters to your client’s customers.

Here are the 4 simple, fast and cheap ways I “talk” to customers, moving from low touch to high touch:

1. Analytics

Clickstream data (like what you find in Google Analytics) and registered user data (like how often they log in, how X they’ve created in your app, etc) help you answer the “jobs to be done” question.

Sometimes usage analytics can also help you spot places where users are facing obstacles (e.g. everyone abandons a process at step X).

What usage analytics don’t tell you is the why – why customers do what they do. They also don’t give you the context of the larger “jobs” customers are trying to accomplish and how the website/app fits into that context.

2. Surveys

You can send an email survey to a group of representative customers in the target market. But if you’re working on an existing website/app, my favorite method to gather quantitative data is to ask people questions right on the page. Services like QualarooIntercom and WebEngage make this simple.

With half a day spent setting up and reviewing the results once they come in, your on-site surveys will give you quantitative data pointing to what jobs are important, why and where the obstacles may be.

3. User Testing

Your can run user testing on your client’s existing website/app or a website/app they will be competing with. Using UserTesting.com, you can set up and review a set of tests in a couple hours and pay around $50/tester.

The primary value in user testing is uncovering the obstacles that prevent people from completing their “jobs”. It also gives you a window into how users think through interactions.

4. Interviews

This is the most direct method. I plan on 15 minutes per phone call, but expect a few of the best to be 30-45 minutes. 10 calls should take you half a day or less and uncover very helpful insights.

Make sure to consider who exactly you want to interview. Do you want a cross section of all customers, or is there a specific group who should have greater representation in your research (newest, most active, highest paying, power users, etc)? Make sure you are listening to the right people.

As far as scheduling is concerned, I’ve had the best success trying to reach people when it is convenient for me and just making sure the calls are brief.

Interviews are best for understanding the larger context: who the customers are as people, what matters to them, the big picture outcomes and obstacles they face in using your client’s product/service.

Which methods should you use?

If I was only able to use one method on a project, I’d pick interviews every time. Nothing provides as rich a window into what matters to the end users. And interviews are the only method that allow you to easily ask a succession of follow up questions to dig deeper and clarify what you are hearing from a customer.

You could also combine interviews and user testing and spend a day completing both with 10 customers. For more information on this approach, check out Steve Krug’s book Rocket Surgery Made Easy. I’ve had great success with this, but it can be a lot more work (preparation, scheduling, incentives, etc).

Of course, I’d recommend you use all of these methods any time you can. And I recommend working through them in order from low touch to high touch so you are well prepared to ask the best questions before your interviews.

Compiling your research

As you review the data and notes from each research method, compile prioritized lists for jobs, outcomes and obstacles. (Your phone interviewees can help you prioritize.)

So at the end, you should have:

  1. A clear description of who the customers / end users are and some understanding of how they think and behave
  2. A prioritized list of the jobs they are trying to get done
  3. A prioritized list of the outcomes they want
  4. A prioritized list of the obstacles they face in getting their jobs done and the outcomes they want

What do you get for your trouble?

The benfits you’ll reap from thoughtfully executed (but lean) research will be tremendous. Among them:

  1. The client will no longer view you as just a “web designer” or “coder”, an order-taker. You become the trusted expert on what matters to their customers and what will move their business forward.
  2. As a trusted advisor, you move from an expense to an investment. And as an investment, the client will begin to see your fee as a multiplier of their success. In short, you can charge significantly more and your client will be happy to pay you.
  3. As you help your client deliver what matters to their customers, and increase the happiness of both your client and their customers, you’ll find your satisfaction increase significantly too.

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