Amid the pandemic, companies are paying closer attention to their online presence and the user experience (UX) is becoming more relevant than ever.
As discussed in other blog pieces by Making Sense, investing in UX can add considerable value to a product and bring a significant return on investment.
Creating a successful UX design is not a one-time occurrence but an ongoing process of constant iterations and improvements. This requires in-depth knowledge of the user and reliable ways to understand their needs and preferences, and how they behave. That is where UX research comes in.
What is UX research?
In a digital world dedicated to how people use and interact with services and applications, research is paramount. This requires obtaining in-depth knowledge and understanding of the user’s needs and behavior and then iteratively testing our assumptions throughout the design process. UX research is a series of investigative methods that add context and provide insight into the design process.
The goal is to understand the user, recognize common needs, and the context in which they will use a product or service. This is done by planning, observing, analyzing and then understanding.
Quantitative vs Qualitative research
There are multiple different research methods but they normally fall into two categories: quantitative and qualitative techniques.
Quantitative research can be measured numerically. It is based on broad metrics that provide answers to questions like how your user audience is composed, what kind of behavior they show, how many people clicked on a certain element of a website, or what percentage of users responded to a call to action. Quantitative research is valuable for getting a general overview or bigger picture to understand what is happening on a site or app. However, it is limited in its scope since we can only get one layer of information, facts, and perspective. Tracking user behavior gives you an inside look at how people interact with your site and what obstacles or hooks they experience in their journey as your customers. User session recordings enable you to do just that, by showing you exactly how users interact with your app, from the second they launch it for the first time and until they quit.
If quantitative research deals with the ‘what’, qualitative research focuses more on the ‘why’. Qualitative research involves collecting and analyzing non-numerical data to understand concepts, opinions, or user experience. A good example of a qualitative research method would be unstructured interviews which generate data through the use of open questions. This allows the respondent to talk in some depth, choosing their own words. Photographs, videos, sound recordings, and so on, can be considered qualitative data.
Which is the best approach?
If you ask the question, which is the best methodology for UX research, the answer is, it depends.
In the words of the famous motivational speaker, Simon Sinek, it is always good to start with why? It’s important to have a clear idea of the objectives of the research (the what), the questions you are asking (why), and the users the research is directed at (who). Once that is clear, you can select the methodology you think best suits the objectives. Data in itself is of little use without context.
The type of research methodology chosen also depends on the circumstances.
Sometimes users are not easy to access directly and the researcher has to be creative in the way they carry out their investigations.
The importance of context
The importance of context in field research can not be underestimated.
A good example of that is Making Sense’s work with Valley Agricultural Software (VAS) in California.
VAS provides a herd management platform that manages the majority of dairy cows in the United States, tracking information about every cow, its production rate, and health.
One of the challenges the legacy system faced was it was centralized in one computer. There was no external access, nor live data feeds from the handheld devices. These devices had to be connected to the main computer to download data, which slowed productivity and response times.
Making Sense was tasked with modernizing the UX of the legacy platform. Part of that job was to improve the usability of the mobile application used for scanning cows and to migrate it to the cloud.
As this was a niche market, with very specific needs, Making Sense visited dairies with VAS Product Owners and observed and recorded multiple videos of how the users behaved or performed tasks on the platform and the context in which they did that.
They discovered insights that would not have been apparent had they not visited the site. For example, the loud noise of the machinery in the dairy made the sending of voice messages impractical, while the glare of the sun shining on the screens of tablets or other handheld devices led researchers to take specific colors and contrasts into their design.
Such on-site visits open up the mind of the researcher to variables they would otherwise not see. They observe not only the user but the environment in which they work and this provides insights that can then be translated into value.
User testing is very important for understanding whether the product is aligned with the needs and mindset of a user, as it provides direct information on how they interact with the product. It is essential to observe the interaction of the user: for example, observing the facial expressions of a user can be very revealing when evaluating whether an interaction was straightforward, intuitive, or caused some doubts.
In this fast-moving digital world, research is an iterative process where one is constantly reevaluating and seeking constant improvement.
In the case of Making Sense’s ongoing work with VAS, the previous research in the form of videos and other records have been invaluable as references for future teams working with this client. This has given some continuity to the research of different UX designers as well as an understanding of the company they are working with. Products are constantly evolving and changing in keeping with user needs and practices and that is why research is an ongoing process sustained over time.
So, in summary, the process starts with a question that you are trying to answer. You then select a set of methodologies, qualitative or quantitative, or a blend of both. The third is the analysis, where the results of the research are organized and studied and attempts made to establish patterns. This data may prove or disprove a hypothesis or an assumption or tell them whether further investigation is needed. This process may also demonstrate that researchers were asking the wrong question and they have to return to square one. Perhaps, the methodology chosen did not fit the research and another methodology must be used.
All of this in a day’s work for a researcher. It’s a constant learning process, discovering things that work and things that don’t. The researcher must have a critical eye and be constantly challenging the old and the new. Often a client needs a helping hand to understand better the behavior of their existing and those of future and research often is just what is needed to unlock that insight.