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Posts tagged ‘User 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

Are Consent Forms Always Necessary?

Are consent forms always necessary? We’re told that consent forms are an indispensable part of ethical user research. Consent forms are the vehicle to give and get informed consent – they inform the participants of what the study will entail and they allow the participant to indicate consent – with a signature and date.A consent form

Yet consent forms can conflict with the informal, friendly rapport that we try to establish with participants. Anything you present for people to sign immediately looks like a legal document or liability waiver. It puts them on guard.

That’s ironic because consent forms are the opposite of legal waivers. Legal documents are created to protect the interests of the company that creates them, while consent forms are created to protect the rights of the people signing them. Yet most participants assume they are signing a typical legal waiver.

Consent forms seem acceptable in more formal user research situations, such as usability testing and focus groups, but they seem odd and even off-putting when used in more informal situations. I’ve found them to be especially awkward when doing field studies at people’s offices. You strive to set up an informal situation, such as asking someone to show you how they create reports or asking them to try out a new design for an expense report application. But when you show up with a consent form for them to sign, it shatters the informal, comfortable rapport you tried so hard to establish. I’ve had people react to consent forms in this kind of situation with, “Hey! I thought we were just talking here.” How many times in the course of your work-life have you had someone show up to a meeting with a legal document for you to sign?

So I say use your judgment. When a consent form feels like it would be overly formal, don’t use it (unless your legal department requires it). Instead, get informed consent informally by email. “Inform” with your email describing what will take place, and get “consent” from their reply email agreeing to participate. At the start of the session, you can inform them again with a summary of what you’ll be doing. They will then give consent by continuing to participate in the session.

A good guideline is how comfortable or uncomfortable you feel when giving participants the consent form. If you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably breaking a group norm. So you should find a more acceptable way of getting informed consent.

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…

Effectively Communicating User Research Findings

I presented at UXPA 2013 today on Effectively Communicating User Research Findings.

This is the reason I’ve been way too busy to blog lately. I’ve been working non-stop on this presentation and also my UXmatters article published this week on Creating Better UX Research Videos: http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2013/07/creating-better-ux-research-videos.php

So check either of these out.

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.

Tattle Tale Participants

Have you ever come across a tattle-tale participant? See if this sounds familiar.

You conduct a user research session (interview, contextual inquiry, focus group, etc.), asking simple questions to get the participants to speak about the subject at a basic level of understanding. Although you may know some of the answers to the questions you’re asking, you ask the questions anyway to hear the answers from the participants’ perspective. Misunderstanding your intent, the participant is alarmed that you don’t know what you’re doing and tattles on you to the client, “It was clear from his questions that he didn’t know anything about our process/system/technology.”

For example, a few years ago I was doing research on a company’s use of SAP. We had a group of interns show us the HR tasks that they do in SAP. Our questions led them to conclude that we didn’t know anything about SAP (which was mostly correct). They tattled to their manager who contacted our main client, alarmed that we weren’t SAP experts. Fortunately, he reassured her that we were user experience experts, and we weren’t supposed to be SAP experts.

What turns a participant into a tattle tale? Usually, it comes from a misunderstanding of our role. As user experience consultants working on many different projects, we constantly have to learn about new organizations, new systems, new processes, new technologies, and new types of people. We interview business stakeholders and conduct user research to learn about these things, but our goal isn’t to become experts. In fact, it’s often better to not be an expert. We have the advantage of seeing a group, system, process, or set of tasks from an outside perspective. Because we don’t already have the same insider knowledge as the business stakeholders and participants,  we can get them to explain things to us as outsiders. To do this, we often need to ask basic questions and sometimes even act “dumb” to get participants to fully explain things that they would otherwise forget to explain or gloss over at a high level.

The worst thing about tattling is that it can make us afraid to ask questions for fear that they might expose our “ignorance.” So make it clear who the experts are – the users and the business stakeholders, and where your expertise lies – user experience. Combining the expertise of business stakeholders, users, and user experience professionals is the key to a successful project.

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.

IA Summit 2012 presentation: User Research is Unnatural (But That’s Okay)

I just got back from the IA Summit 2012 in New Orleans, where I presented User Research is Unnatural (But That’s Okay). Yes, that may seem like a strange topic for a user researcher to present, but I think it’s very important to remember how strange and unnatural user research can seem for participants. The point of my presentation is that by remaining aware of the awkward and uncomfortable aspects of user research, we can take steps to minimize or eliminate those problems to get better research results.

See my slides on Slideshare:  User Research is Unnatural (But That’s Okay)

This was my first time attending the IA Summit, and it was a great conference with some excellent speakers and intriguing topics. As a user researcher who more often attends UPA and CHI conferences, it was interesting to attend a more design-oriented conference. I’m already looking forward to next year’s IA Summit, which will be in Baltimore.

New article: Communicating User Research Findings

My latest article for UXmatters is about Communicating User Research Findings.

I’ve created a variety of different types of deliverables over the years, to communicate my findings and recommendations from user research. It can be difficult because you often have a variety of different people in the audience, from management, product owners, designers, and developers. Each brings a different level of interest in the findings.

This article discusses the considerations of choosing a deliverable format, types of deliverables, and elements of effective deliverables.

Read the entire article at UXmatters: Communicating User Research Findings.

New article: Career Advice for User Researchers

I just published a new article in my Practical Usability column in UXmatters: Career Advice for User Researchers.

As I approached the ten year anniversary of my first job in usability, I started to reflect on all the things I’ve learned over the years. Originally, I was going to distill the main lessons I’d learned over those years into an article tentatively titled, “Ten things in Ten Years.” Well, I never got around to completing that article, and the ten year anniversary passed. Eventually, the idea evolved into career advice for people new to user research, and I finally got around to publishing it around my 11th anniversary in user research.

The article covers a lot of practical advice for people considering a career in user research, including the following topics:

  • Do you want to be a User Researcher, a Designer, or both?
  • Who do you want to work for?
  • What type of employee do you want to be?
  • Why type of projects do you want to work on?
  • What value does the company you’re considering place on user research?
  • Where does the company you’re considering draw the line between research and design?
  • What is the prestige and reputation of the company you’re considering?
  • Does the job title matter?
  • Where do you want to work?
  • How do you break into the field?
  • Do you need a portfolio?
  • How to cultivate your online presence.
  • What to do once you have a job.

Read the entire article at UXmatters: Career Advice for User Researchers.

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