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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.

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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.