The key to solving problems smarter? A user researcher

Whether you’re building a new product, introducing a new service, or making changes to an existing one, understanding your users is vital to your business’s long-term success. Research is a facilitator of internal ideas and knowledge gathering of users. A good researcher can embed themselves in your team to help you figure out what questions to ask, who can help you answer them, and what method you’ll use in order to get the most accurate and useful results.

A researcher is a collaborative partner — but to make the most of user research, you’ll want to create an optimal environment for gathering data and analyzing the results. Here are some ways you can get started off on the right foot with your user research program.

Why user research matters

There are many reasons why you may be considering hiring a user researcher, not least of which is “I’ve heard they can be a really great asset.” But having a clear idea of what value a user researcher could bring to your team will help you make decisions faster and answer the questions you really want answers to.

Reasons to hire a researcher

  1. You need to make a big decision, but don’t have anything to inform your direction.
  2. You’re stalled or stumped about how to solve a specific problem.

To find a great individual to join your team, you may look to your local UX design community to introduce you to viable candidates. You can also browse any number of special interest groups online and use search terms like usability, user research, user experience research, applied ethnography, ethnographic research, and recruiter/ coordinator.

The first person on your research team should probably be relatively senior — someone you won’t necessarily have to mentor or spend a lot of time onboarding. Most researchers are familiar with two types of work setups:

  • Make/ find: this scenario occurs when a team brings in a researcher without knowing exactly what they’ll be working on. Research is still useful in this scenario, but the researcher will likely end up creating her own work and uncovering opportunities for research to be inserted into processes.
  • I have a problem: the “problem” is rarely what people assume it is; the role of the researcher in this scenario is to uncover the real problem and to help the team come up with a suitable solution.

Regardless of which scenario best describes your organization, you’ll find research to be a worthwhile investment. Once you’ve found your partner, you’ll be ready to start researching.

The first step: finding the true nature of your ‘problem’

A researcher will help you get to the root of your problem and in many cases, uncover that the problem you have isn’t what you thought it was at all. You may not have been thinking about it very long, or haven’t been thinking about it with enough context. Or, you’ve only been thinking about the problem in the context of your world, and not in the broader sense of things. A researcher will be able to help you formulate the right question to ask. The next step is figuring out how you’ll answer it.

But how do you identify the right method?

Research methods to consider

If you just need a gut check on some concepts or direction to get you going, you’ll want to talk to about 3-5 people, at a minimum. If you want to make big decisions, with high stakes, you’ll want to interview a larger group.

Once you’ve nailed down your questions, it’s time to actually do the research and start learning. There are many methods at your disposal, including:

  • Generative vs. formative (activities that will open up more options or close / narrow down)
  • Games
  • Empathic listening: let the information go and discover vs. point and click
  • Remote research: video and screensharing. Gives more flexibility to talk to people in different regions and makes it easier to get participants.

Avoid hearing what you want to hear

One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced researchers and non-researchers make is allowing their original hypothesis and gut to stand in the way of uncovering new ideas or relying too heavily on past experience. Examples of this include observing one person and making a broad conclusion such as “everyone is struggling with the sign-in process” or being unwilling to alter a hypothesis. There are a few ways to avoid this:

  • Go back to your hypothesis. People have a tendency to interpret things based on their hunch and often want to guide a conversation to validate a hunch. Acknowledge whatever is happening in your research group to help individuals be in touch with their biases.
  • Use incremental methods. Take some time to talk to a small group to understand if you’re on the right path, then expand to a larger group. And so on. By researching incrementally, you’ll avoid generalizations like ‘this group of people said this’ — and that’s all we have to go on.

How to get the best answers to your questions

Interviewing people is a skill; it requires not only asking the right questions, but creating a cadence that allows people to share their true feelings candidly. We recommend:

  • Give people the ability to tell their experience. Frame the question so they can talk about it based on their experience and be firmly grounded in reality. For example: “Have you ever used anything like this before?” vs. “Could you imagine using something like this?”
  • Let them tell a story. When you allow people to tell a story, you’ll get much richer information than if you were to just focus on one thing.
  • Don’t just stick to a script. The more you guide the conversation, the more the participant will stick to what you’re asking them. If you don’t provide room for improv, you may be missing valuable information.

The #1 rule for working with researchers

If there’s one thing you should always remember about working with a researcher, it’s this: collaborate early. Not only will this ensure a smoother process and better results, but it will establish a positive relationship between the researcher (and team) and the rest of the organization. Treating the researcher like a partner and not a service will help you leverage them in ways you may not have even imagined. When non-researchers and researchers are in sync throughout the product cycle process, you’ll find that the outcome will help you make better business decisions.

Have you worked with a researcher or research team before? Do you have any advice for leveraging research in business?

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