User Research

User research is at the heart of designing a good user experience. In fact, the terms “user research” and “user experience research” are often used interchangeably.

User research looks at how users perform tasks and find needed information, and seeks to learn about their requirements and goals for a product, application, or website. User research leads to a deeper understanding of your users’ needs and whether these needs are being met. Research findings can help you make informed design decisions throughout the product design/development process. What’s more, the research can reveal opportunities for new products or applications and inspire innovation.

Why Perform User Research

When asked at what points in the design/development process to involve users, we say, “Early and often!” User research always delivers gems of information. Understanding how users interact with technology in general and with your product specifically, and applying the principles of  user-centered design (UCD) are critical to success.

Admittedly, it is easier to omit users from the process than to include them. But the cost of not doing user research can be staggering, including market failure, high call volume to tech support, and re-coding. That’s because designers and developers are rarely identical to the intended users of a product.

User research can also inform marketing communication, resulting in brochures, data sheets, and other collateral that guide prospective customers to buy the right product for their needs. Otherwise, with a mismatch between need and product, customers will clog your tech support lines with calls.

What Constitutes User Research

User research is any information collection activity with users, from in-depth individual interviews to large-sample surveys. Usability testing is a common form of user research whose purpose is to identify problems in a user interface, establish a baseline for measuring future improvement, or measure improvement since the last test. Non-testing forms of user research include field research, focus groups, and usability surveys.

Wondering how best to spend your user research budget? Check out “Investing in User Research: Deciding what Research to Perform,” which summarizes a panel discussion at the 2011 Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) International Conference.