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Posts tagged ‘Research’

Better Group Research Sessions

Many user experience professionals cringe when clients want to do focus groups. In UX we extol the value of user research with individuals, either in usability testing or field studies, where we observe and interview individuals in the context of their tasks. Focus groups seem like a flaky, unreliable marketing activity. Unfortunately, because of our disdain for focus groups we sometimes extend that disdain to any research activity that involves a group of people.

Why Don’t We Like Focus Groups?

In UX we highly value observing the behavior of individuals in their natural context. Focus groups provide the exact opposite. They reveal what people say in a group out of context of their typical environment.

What People Say

Focus groups usually gather feelings, attitudes, opinions, and preferences; but they can’t tell us about behavior. We can’t rely much on what people say they do, because so much of what we do is done automatically without much conscious thought. So it’s difficult for people to accurately talk about what they do, out of context. That’s why we like to observe people in the context of performing their tasks. It’s more accurate, and it’s easier for people to show us what they do.

 In a Group

Being in a group has its limitations:

  • Group dynamics often influence individuals to go along with the group instead of speaking their own minds. They often say what they think will sound good to the group, and they may not feel comfortable speaking honestly about certain topics.
  • A few outspoken people often dominate the discussion, while others remain more silent.
  • You get much less information from each person than you would in individual sessions.
  • Group sessions are not useful for evaluation, because it’s hard for people to evaluate a design or prototype unless they can try it out themselves, which usually isn’t possible in a group.

 Out of Context

Focus groups bring people out of their usual context into an unnatural environment. We don’t get to see their usual behavior, the tasks they perform, their tools and technology, their environment, or the people they typically interact with.

Group Sessions Can be Useful

Because of these disadvantages with focus groups, we tend to overlook the value of any type of group research session. However, group research sessions can be valuable. Even when we are specifically requested to conduct focus groups, we don’t have to conduct traditional, marketing focus groups. We can modify them to make them more useful.

Why Conduct Group Research?

Group sessions provide some advantages over individual sessions:

  • You save time and money by meeting with many participants at once.
  • Group sessions are a useful way to quickly gather initial information about a topic, before going out to do individual user research sessions. For example, you could learn about a process at a high-level by having a group of employees each talk about their role in the process.
  • Interaction between participants can spark discussions that might never be revealed in individual interviews. For example, a group of employees from the same company may have a more productive discussion about their work than if you held individual interviews with each of them separately. Because they all know each other and have things in common, they may talk about things together that they would never bring up to you, as an outsider.
  • In group sessions, you can have participants work together in small groups and listen to their decision making and reasoning. For example, you can do group card sorting to hear how participants make decisions about how to group the cards.

Research Formats

In addition to group discussion, you can break up a group into smaller groups or give them individual activities.

The Entire Group

Discussing topics as a group takes advantage of the group dynamic to hear different perspectives, to get consensus, to debate, or to hear about different parts of a process.

Smaller Groups

Breaking into several smaller groups allows individuals to work together on activities that would be unwieldy to do with the entire group. As they work together, you can listen to and observe their decision making. You can then have each group present their results to the entire group to generate further discussion.

Individual Activities

Another option is to have the participants each perform an activity on their own and then present it to the group. This is effective with activities that require thought and are easier to do alone. For example, you could give the participants time to draw diagrams of their process, and then you could ask them to present their drawing to the entire group. You get the advantage of getting each person’s individual perspective but also with the advantage of group discussion.

Group Size

Any group activity becomes difficult to manage with too many participants. More than ten participants are usually too much. If there are more than ten people that need to be involved, it’s better to schedule multiple sessions.

Dyads and Triads

Market research uses terms like dyads and triads to describe group sessions with two and three participants. Groups of these sizes have different dynamics than a large group. They combine some of the dynamics of individual interviews with those of group sessions. In user experience, dyads (sessions with two participants) or triads (sessions with three participants) make sense when there’s a natural relationship between those people. For example, if you’re researching the car buying process, it might make sense to interview a husband and wife together. Or if three employees perform different parts of a related process, it may make sense to talk with them together to understand the process and how their roles relate.

Alternative Group Research Activities

In addition to group discussions, there are many creative and unique activities that you can use to gather information about the users and their tasks, and to get user input into the design. Instead of describing these techniques in detail, each of which could be its own article, I’ve provided links to read more about each technique.

Group Card Sorting

If organization of information and gathering common terminology is your goal, group card sorting is a quick way to gather that information. You can break up the group into smaller sub-groups of two or three participants each. They then work together to sort pieces of information on index cards or post-it notes into categories and sub-categories, and then name each category. For more information, see: http://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/card-sorting.html

Affinity Diagrams

Similar to card sorting, you can have sub-groups work together to group related items on post-it notes and then label those groups to create affinity diagrams. Afterwards, the entire group can discuss the themes that emerge. For more information, see: http://www.usabilitybok.org/affinity-diagram

Drawing or Modeling

Breaking the group into small groups or individuals and having them illustrate or build a model of their ideas, concepts, workflows, or processes is a great way to get insight into their thought processes and mental models. After each person presents their drawing or model to the group, discussion is facilitated by having these concrete items to talk about. For more information, see: http://uxmag.com/articles/creativity-based-research-the-process-of-co-designing-with-users and http://johnnyholland.org/2011/10/storyboarding-ux-part-3-storyboarding-as-a-workshop-activity/

Collaging

Individuals or groups can create collages from a set of provided images to express their feelings about a particular issue. The collages then can be described and discussed. For more information, see: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/02/06/collaging-getting-answers-questions-you-dont-know-ask/

Priming Activities

You can give the participants assignments to do before the group session, such as writing about or taking photos of an experience, creating drawings, or creating collages. Because they do this outside the group session, it allows more time for presenting their work and discussing it as a group. It also brings in a little bit of each person’s real experience outside of the conference room. For more information, see: http://johnnyholland.org/2010/05/not-to-prime-is-a-crime/

Design Games

Several sources provide creative group activities to provide input to design problems. Gamestorming, a book by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo provides more than 80 group games to encourage creativity and generate new ideas. The site Design Games also provides a number of games with complete directions about how to play them.

Group Sessions as a First Step

Group sessions with users or stakeholders are an efficient way to get high-level information about subject matter, users, tasks, and processes. With participatory design and design games, you can get user input into the design. Ideally, group sessions shouldn’t replace individual observations and interviews with users, but they are a good first step to gather the initial information to understand the basics before going out to conduct field research.

 

 

Group photo courtesy of Kennisland on Flickr under Creative Commons license

Two Rarely Used Research Methods

Observing in a public areaMy two most recent articles in UXmatters have been about two research techniques that are very common to anthropology and the social sciences but are rarely used in design research. Covert naturalistic observation and participant observation certainly require more work and time than we usually have in UX projects, but it’s worth taking a look at these two methods to see what we can adapt to design research.

Covert Naturalistic Observation
This type of study is known in psychology, anthropology, and other social sciences as covert naturalistic observation. It is the opposite of the techniques we typically use, which are forms of overt naturalistic observation. Being covert means observing behaviors in their natural contexts without any intervention or influence by the researcher and without participants knowing that they’re being observed.

Participatory Observation
Anthropologists and sociologists often practice participant observation, in which they join a group as a participating member to get a first-hand perspective of the group and their activities. Instead of observing as an outsider, they play two roles at once—objective observer and subjective participant…

A UX Researcher’s New Year’s Resolutions

New Year

Flickr: RLHyde

Try new things

In 2013, I’ll try new techniques instead of relying on the same routine research activities. For each project, I’ll step back and think about what research activities make the most sense based on the situation. Trying new things and inventing new techniques keeps things interesting.

Work faster

This year, I’ll do some things faster, to be more agile and lean where possible so that research continues to be included in projects. We’ve done a good job of selling clients and project team members on the value of including user research in projects. The remaining hurdle is that it often takes longer than they would like. There definitely are areas that can be sped up.

Work slower

In 2013, I’m going to use the time I save on working faster to spend more time on the activities that provide the most value. Some things shouldn’t be rushed. Analysis of research data, for example, is the most important, but least understood part of user research. No one ever seems to understand what analysis involves, how long it can take, and how important it is. In 2013, I’m going to fight for the time needed for analysis and do a better job explaining what it involves, why it takes so long, and why it’s so important to give it the time needed.

Get better participants

In 2013, instead of aiming high and settling for what we’re able to recruit, I’m going to create better screeners and spend more time making sure that the people who have been recruited, match the type of people we want to get. I’m going to be especially careful when clients are doing the recruiting of their own customers, employees, or members. I’ll give them better instructions in findings and recruiting people, and I’ll evaluate the types of people that they’ve scheduled.

Publish and present

In 2013, I’ll continue to publish articles in UXmatters and elsewhere. I’ll try to present at a conference. Publishing and presenting are great ways to share your knowledge with others in the field. For more tips on publishing and presenting, see my series of articles on Publishing and Presenting in UXmatters.

Attend more UX events

In 2013, I’ll attend more local UX events. In Philadelphia, we have a very active CHI group, PhillyCHI, but I always find it difficult to get motivated to go out after a long work day and attend their events. Every time I do attend, however, I find that it’s a great way to meet others in the field, and I always learn something useful.

Read more

In 2013, I’d like to read more UX-related books and articles. That’s easier said than done when you’re really busy at work. And after a day practicing UX, it’s difficult to get motivated to read UX in your spare time. Usually, I want to read anything else. Fortunately, a great trend in UX books is towards shorter, more practical books that can be read quickly (for example, the Rosenfeld Media books).

Be thankful for what I have

It can feel good to complain and think about what could be better about your job, but I find that I often don’t think about how good I have it. I’m doing a job I enjoy, that’s challenging, and usually interesting. In 2013, I’d like to focus more on the positive and appreciate what I have. If I find that I have only complaints and nothing to be thankful for, I’ll know that it’s up to me to change things.

Those are my resolutions. I hope I can achieve most, if not all of them, in 2013.

A Researcher Observing User Research

I had an interesting experience recently observing another user researcher conducting user research. I was overseeing a project with a more junior researcher who was actually doing the work. She was conducting contextual inquiries, and I was the secondary person on the team, simply observing her lead the session. The experience made me realize several things.

What you notice as an observer

It’s difficult to let someone else lead

Sitting back and simply observing instead of leading the session was a very odd experience for me. I’m used to taking the active role and leading the session. It was difficult to restrain myself from asking questions and taking over the session. It took me a while to relax and just let the session unfold. Once I did that, I realized that I noticed different things.

You notice different things

When you’re simply observing and you don’t have to facilitate, you’re able to observe more. Since you don’t have to focus on taking notes, assessing the information that you’re taking in, thinking of the next question to ask, and maintaining a positive rapport with the participant; you can focus more on the context in which the tasks are performed. Since I knew my colleague was recording the session and taking detailed notes on what the participant was doing and saying, I found myself taking more notes on the work environment, the participant’s desk, the things posted on the cubicle wall, and tools that the participant used.

You notice how well the research works

As an observer, you notice much more about how well the primary researcher facilitates the session, you see how the participant reacts to the situation, and you pick up tips for your own facilitating. You can sit back and focus on the interaction between the researcher and participant with a critical eye.

What is the role of a secondary researcher?

What can we learn from this, and what’s the role of a secondary researcher on field research? The secondary researcher:

  • Should stay out of the way and let the primary researcher lead the session
  • Can note additional questions and ask them at appropriate intervals, without throwing off the direction of the session
  • Can focus on the environment and contextual cues, taking detailed notes and asking specific questions about these elements
  • Can be the note-taker who takes detailed notes, when there won’t be enough time to listen to the recordings later
  • Can evaluate how well the primary researcher facilitates the session, using that knowledge to provide constructive feedback later and also to improve his/her own skills in facilitation

Two is the magic number of people who should attend field studies. One is the primary researcher. The other can be another researcher, but it’s often better to include a designer to allow him/her to see the research first hand. So in most cases, a second researcher is not the best person to attend research. Although when a second researcher does attend, use the techniques I’ve discussed in this post to make the most of the experience.

How Many Brains is Your User Research In?

Brain

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sure, it saves time to skip official research deliverables and just apply the research knowledge you’ve learned directly to the design, but it’s shortsighted. Unlike design, which leaves behind a tangible artifact that you can see, feel, and use; user research consists of abstract knowledge locked in the brain of the researcher until it’s presented effectively in a deliverable. If that knowledge isn’t officially captured and presented understandably to others, it tends to get lost over time.

That became clear to me recently when I was asked to take over a project for a Researcher who was leaving our company. Because of a very short timeframe, there was no official deliverable from her contextual inquiries, only informal notes. She was asked to give me a “knowledge transfer,” and provide me with her high-level notes. Needless to say, the knowledge transfer didn’t go very well, and she left the company taking her brain with her, including all the research it contained.

A similar mistake occurs when multiple researchers work on a project, dividing up the sessions between themselves. To project managers and clients, that can sound like a great idea. Two researchers can either get the research done in half the time, or they can double the number of participants in the same time frame. The problem is that instead of building up knowledge through repetition, each researcher only has the knowledge of half of the sessions. To analyze the results, they have to then somehow combine what they observed.

So until they invent a direct brain-to-brain transfer device: attend every session, don’t split up sessions between multiple researchers, and produce effective and comprehensive deliverables to document your findings for future generations.

Caring for Your User Researcher

Affectionate dog

Affectionate dog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of a user researcher. Treat him or her well and you’ll have years of effectively designed products. This guide will help you in the care and nurturing of your user researcher.

Feed your researcher well

  • Research days are often very busy and unpredictable. The most important person to consider on these days is not the clients or other observers; it’s the person who has to remain sharpest – the researcher.
  • Make sure your researcher is well fed and has enough time to eat meals. This will provide the energy needed to concentrate on the research session.
  • You may remember the meals, but don’t forget the snacks. If everyone else gets cookies, make sure you save some for the researcher.

Avoid burnout

  • Research is often very mentally challenging. It’s easy for your researcher to get burned out, and when that happens, he or she can’t operate at top form, which could mean missing things or not asking the right questions.
  • Don’t schedule too many sessions in a single day. Four to five usability testing sessions and three or four field studies are about the maximum before burnout sets in.
  • Provide enough breaks between sessions, and allow your researcher to relax during those times.
  • Don’t fill the break times with meetings or discussions with clients. Provide time to rest the mind. Your researcher may need to step away and have some alone time.

Provide variety

  • Most researchers don’t want to do the same things all the time. If you don’t provide enough variety, eventually he or she will seek variety by going to another company.
  • Provide variety in the following aspects: clients, platforms to work on (websites, intranets, mobile devices, software, products, service design, etc.), research activities (usability testing, unmoderated studies, field studies, etc.), and types of people to work with.

Let your researcher run free

  • Don’t micromanage your user researcher. Trust his or her judgment.
  • Provide input on what you want to learn from the research, review the research plan, but give your researcher the independence to make the final decisions on how to accomplish the research goals. Remember you selected your researcher for his or her expertise. Listen to it.

Provide enough time to do quality work

  • Ensure that your researcher has enough time to plan the research and analyze the results.
  • Understand that your researcher will often get very interested and involved in the results and will want to produce a thorough deliverable. If there is time, allow for this.

Give praise and recognition

  • Like most people, your researcher will appreciate praise, recognition, and rewards for a job well done.
  • Your researcher will appreciate it when people take the user research seriously and appreciate the findings.

Let your researcher out to play with others

  • Your researcher will often interact with users, but otherwise, research is often a solitary activity that can get somewhat lonely.
  • Encourage your researcher work with others on the project team, such as designers and developers, to provide a more well-rounded perspective of their work and to give them a first-hand insight into the research.
  • Don’t exclude your researcher as soon as the research part of the project is completed. Keep your researcher around to use his or her valuable knowledge in the design and development phases.

Encourage your researcher’s development

  • Encourage your researcher to keep up with developments in the field by reading books, reading blogs and other Web resources, and attending events.
  • Encourage him or her to publish, present, and attend conferences and other industry events.

By following these guidelines, you should have a long and healthy working relationship with your user researcher. Good luck and have fun!

 

New Article: Capturing User Research

My latest article for UXmatters is about Capturing User Research. It discusses the pros and cons of various methods of capturing user research from handwritten notes, typing up notes on a laptop or tablet, having someone else take notes, recording the audio, recording with video, taking photos, logging, and simply relying on your memory. 

Read the entire article at UXmatters: Capturing User Research.

Never Enough Time

The Passage of Time

Image by ToniVC via Flickr

Like many things in life, there’s never seems to be enough time for user research. Sessions are too short, and there’s never enough time to analyze the results. What effect does this have on the quality of the research? A lot!  But surprisingly, just adding a little extra time can make all the difference.

Not enough time for sessions

User research sessions are frequently too short, leaving you to decide whether to rush through the session, trying to cover everything at a high level, or you only cover a portion of the questions. Either way, you waste an opportunity.

The time needed for research sessions is unpredictable. The focus of research always seems to expand with additional client requests and topics that you would like to cover. You never know exactly what you’ll encounter during a session. Some participants have more to discuss than others, some encounter more problems than others, and some are just more talkative. So session times can vary greatly between participants.

It’s always better to err on longer sessions. If you plan for more time than you need, no one minds ending early and getting back some extra, unexpected time. For participants, there’s not all that much difference between a one hour session and a 90 minute or two hour session. If they’re coming in to your lab, a focus group facility, or some other location, the biggest obstacle is taking the time out of their day to travel to and from the location. Once they’ve made that effort to get to you, an extra 30 to 60 minutes doesn’t make much of a difference. So plan longer research sessions to ensure you have enough time to cover everything.

Not enough time for analysis

It always amazes me that people will spend so much time and money planning, recruiting participants, and conducting the research and then provide too little time for analysis in a rush to get the findings. Analyzing user research can be extremely time consuming. Unfortunately, you rarely get enough time to analyze the results. Listening to recordings, typing up notes, organizing the notes into themes, analyzing the findings, and then creating deliverables takes time. When this process is rushed, quality is compromised.

Sometimes clients are excited by the idea of conducting research, but are too impatient to wait very long to hear the results. They are usually under the impression that by simply observing the sessions, high-level, overall findings will emerge. They aren’t concerned with taking time to analyze the details. This method often leads to shallow and misguided findings.

Of course there are reasonable limitations in terms of how much a project can wait for analysis and the presentation of the results, but often the time to analyze the results is set arbitrarily. The user researcher then either has to work extremely long hours to fit an enormous amount of work into a small time frame or has to find ways to cut corners.

User research is time consuming and expensive. After putting so much time and money into it, it makes no sense to short change the final step that provides the most value. Providing even a little extra time for analysis can make a big difference in the quality of the findings and in improving the job satisfaction of your user researchers.

The bottom line, provide more time for each user research session and more time for analysis. It won’t add that much more to the cost of your user research, and it will add a lot to the quality of the results.

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