Five principles for generating usable user research

September 9, 2014 by No Comments | Category Digital Public Services,

This is a post by Cat Macaulay, our User Research Lead and is part of our series on Standards & Guidelines

Building a user research practice into a large and complex project like is a pretty daunting task. So as we start out on this journey, we wanted to try and give ourselves some principles to guide us along the way. They are there to keep us focussed on the idea that, just as user research is meant to help create usable products and services, user research itself actually needs to be usable (or actionable) as well.

1. Research with project teams, not for them

It is easy to make huge assumptions about the people who will use our products and services, because it is hard to walk in someone else’s shoes. This is what user researchers are trained to be sensitive to and what user research methods are designed to deal with.

But it is equally easy for user researchers to assume they know the kinds of research that project teams need to move their work forward. It’s only by working side by side with the rest of the project team that we can be sure we are addressing relevant user research needs. As the user research team at GDS says – user research is a team sport.

2. Research with users, as opposed to carrying out research on users

We have a branding problem – the term user research sets up an image of people under a microscope, having their ideas and experiences recorded and then taken away to be put to some mysterious use. Even the term ‘user’ immediately reduces the people who use our website to ‘website users’ and not whole people.

Working with users, not just as people to be researched, but as active partners in helping us understand what we need to know, opens doors to issues and problems we cannot anticipate because our own life history and experience has not encountered them.

3. Usability testing should be (as) light, fast and frequent (as possible)

Usability testing is a great way of asking ourselves whether our product/service/website is fit for purpose. Can people use it to achieve core tasks, meet core needs? It’s how we can find the bugs in the design, improve ease of use and make sure we have produced something that can be used by the full diversity of people that might wish or need to use it.

Testing as often and as quickly as we can, with the minimum number of people we need, clears bugs and major design flaws out of the way quickly.

4. Research practices and contexts, as well as use

When we use a website to do our supermarket shopping we don’t think of ourselves as ‘people using a website’, but as ‘people doing the shopping’ (at least until the website behaves strangely). But if you are building a website for online supermarket shopping, it’s pretty easy to believe that people think of themselves at that moment as ‘online supermarket website users’.

This mismatch in how we think about what is happening can lead to all sorts of difficult design challenges. Supermarkets know that people do lots of things while they are ‘shopping’. They chat on the phone, they bump into friends, they wander aimlessly over to a shelf for a look, they worry about things that happened at work that day. They know that the weather will change the kinds of foods people will want. They know that in times of austerity, people will be very bargain conscious.

Supermarkets are designed to accommodate how people actually shop. They put new products in clearly marked areas away from places where people might be very focused on ‘everyday item’ gathering. They have cafes and seating areas. They strategically place comfort items, like chocolate bars, in areas where you are likely to be standing for a while mulling over your day/life/woes.

Digital designers need to be aware of all this too. If user research only concerns itself with people actually using digital services, it cannot help designers anticipate how the context of use, or the bigger picture of a user’s life, will affect them. That’s why user research should concern itself with understanding those bigger picture issues.

Studying how people actually use a design or service helps us understand how well it meets their immediate task needs and expectations, how they feel about it, and whether they trust it. But it doesn’t tell us if it fits into that bigger picture. Which is why UX testing is important but not the whole story when it comes to user research.

5. Research needs to be visible and shared quickly

User researchers tend to be curious people, fascinated by other people and their lives. It can be very easy to get lost in research. User researchers are also trained to think much more deeply about how we understand things, about what forms of data, reasoning and analysis are credible and reliable, than most of us typically do. That can make user researchers a bit shy of letting go of their data and findings.

In the fast-paced world of agile website development, holding on to data and findings creates blockages in progress that can knock on, in unforeseen ways, to other areas of work. For those of us in the user research world this is a big focus of thinking.

There’s another good reason to make data and early thinking available quickly – developers, designers, product owners and users themselves will help us see things in our data and findings.

Making data visible and sharable helps us generate wider and deeper conversations about that data. We’re trying to make user research more usable and these five principles are where it all begins.

We’ll be sharing updates on this, and much more on social, so follow the team via @mygovscot  on Twitter for more updates. Want to comment? Let us know below!

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