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UX Research 101: How to Build Your User Research Strategy from Scratch

Talking to your users is the best way to build products they love. But how do you even get started?

7 mins read

Design always builds on UX research. And the best designed products come to life because of a sound user research strategy

Take one of the best-known examples — Apple products are sleek and stunning. The act of merely unboxing a new Apple device is a thrill. The compelling design made competitors stand up, take notice and try to emulate them. 

Apple raised the bar for tech companies by deeply understanding that users want more than just a product. They want an experience.

The ultimate goal of user research is to understand more about users, particularly their needs and pain points. How does your product or service address those needs and eliminate those grievances? It can be daunting to kickstart your research journey. 

But don’t worry. We have some great tips on how to create a user research strategy.

Why do I need a user research strategy?

Eva is the first researcher at a golf coaching company, Golf-in-class (GIC). Her task is to assist the organization with research for their new application, which (hopefully) will enable golfers to book lessons via their smartphone, watch instructional videos and purchase items from an online merchandise store.

Where does Eva begin?

She creates a user research strategy. A user research strategy provides a framework, pipeline and understanding of research projects at a company. Projects are tied to strategic questions, along with tactical initiatives or studies that will help answer them.

A good user research strategy:

  • Develops a customer-centric culture: People across the organization develop user empathy by listening to frustrations, motivations and goals. A user research strategy aligns everyone around one goal – to help their users.
  • Effectively allocates resources. Based on the importance and time sensitivity of research projects, a strategy helps prioritize studies in line with the product, design and engineering teams’ more urgent needs. 
  • Provides concrete success metrics. Define what success is and how it’s measured at the outset. This aids in quantifying product decisions and keeps everyone on track.
  • Communicates the value of research across the organization. Research is a continuous process and provides ongoing learnings about users. Employees from various teams can access, benefit and act on research insights. Over time, reliance on research grows stronger.

A helpful tool to help chart the user research journey is a research roadmap. Closely tied to a product roadmap, a research roadmap lays out the path ahead, where one can oversee and guide individual research projects. Each project is linked to an overarching business goal. Project details such as scope, methodology and checkpoints are all easily accessible and retrievable from the roadmap. A research roadmap can also include documentation with principles and best practices to guide new researchers or non-researchers through the process.

User research starts with discovery

Before diving headfirst into conducting research, take a step back and consider the overall objectives.

First, Eva must identify potential beneficiaries of her research. Who are the relevant stakeholders and what insights are they looking for? Product and design teams at GIC will likely benefit from user research while developing the app, but what about sales, marketing and upper management? They too can use insights to understand their demographic – learn more about their buying patterns and preferred channels of communication.

By involving them from the beginning, Eva can understand exactly what questions each team needs answers to. After collating questions and interest areas from each team, she must now decide what research methodology to use and when.

In the product development life cycle, research occurs in three phases:

Diary StudiesGather qualitative data about user activities and experiences over time. Insights help you understand behavior of the target audience.
Focus GroupsGetting a broad view of the audience & insight into a group of people with a quick turnaround
EthnographyObserve people in the context of their daily lives
Field StudiesObserve people in their natural environment
Generative interviewsInterviews to discover more about user goals, motivations, pain points and attitudes
Validation & testing

Qualitative usability testingHow ‘usable’ is your product? Conducted in small groups
Tree testingTesting the architecture of your website / app – examines how users navigate the interface
First-click testingMeasures where users first click on your website / app
Task analysisAnalyze how users perform tasks. Helpful when testing product features.
A/B testingTesting one option against another 
Accessibility testingIs the website / app accessible to differently-abled individuals? A step towards more conscious, inclusive design
(post product launch)
AnalyticsQuantitative & qualitative analytics 
SurveysMeasure user attitudes towards a product, and their preferences & feelings about particular features
Note: An exhaustive list lives in this Guide to Using User-Experience Research Methods

Qualitative research plays a crucial role in the discovery phase as researchers seek to understand more about the user experience and generate hypotheses. During validation and testing, methods tend to be more quantitative and statistically-driven, as real-life testing is conducted on the product or app. Here, researchers vigorously test hypotheses quantitatively. Despite the quantitative rigor, qualitative user feedback at this stage is crucial to the success of the product. Once the product is launched, a researcher’s work doesn’t stop. To continually improve their product and the user experience, they must collect both qualitative and quantitative data about how users interact with the product. 

Learn more about when to use quantitative vs. qualitative research.

Work on GIC’s app hasn’t even begun, and given the high time and money costs associated with ethnographic and diary studies, Eva decides to go with a combination of interviews, focus groups and field studies to gather more information about potential users. She decides to visit driving ranges at a host of local golf clubs to conduct her research.

Your user research strategy needs personas

Who are potential GIC app users? What do they think? What motivates them? Eva likely gained this deeper understanding of golfer’s needs and pain points from her interactions at driving ranges. How does she use this newly-acquired information to understand more about potential GIC app users?

Create user personas. User personas enable a deep understanding of the target audience for any product. A user persona is a typical user whose characteristics and attitudes are representative of a much larger group of users. It can include basic demographic data such as gender, income level, education, marital status and location. Personas also include traits such as goals or motivations, frustrations, preferences, biases and other social and cultural information. There’s a debate whether to include or omit basic demographic data while creating user personas, as it can create biases, unfair assumptions and generalizations about these users. 

User personas help designers create better products, as they have specific, not generic users in mind. Traits of a generic or elastic user are loosely defined, and can vary in the minds of different stakeholders. Creating a user persona helps product and design teams identify users they are designing for — it personifies (for lack of a better word) the user and brings their voice into the conversation. 

Golf is a game played by all age groups, Eva concluded from her research. She noticed a lot of young children accompanied by their parents at lessons. It occurred to her that the parents (aged 40+) would be the ones interacting with the app. While constructing a user persona of a typical parent, Eva noted, Parents may not be as tech savvy as millennials or younger age groups, therefore they would likely favor simplicity while navigating through the GIC app.

User personas build user empathy and put designers (and beyond) in the user’s shoes. How do we map user needs to their experiences while immersed in our product? Parents are looking for an easy way to book lessons for their kids, and wouldn’t be too enticed by the merchandise shop or videos. What about the user persona of golf coaches who will use the GIC app? Their interaction must be simple too – ideally they’d like to view their lessons in a calendar format, and be apprised of any schedule changes via notification.

Creating user personas also helps avoid self-referential design – where designers create products chiefly for themselves. Their audience may be vastly different from their own personality traits and preferences. Without understanding their users, designers may add features and functionality without questioning whether it’s really needed or not. Adding a mobile golf game within the app might confuse parents who are simply on the app to book a lesson. User personas help decide what’s necessary and what isn’t. The best user personas are based on real field research and user interviews, but creating temporary personas is a good starting point.

User interviews validate your user research

One research methodology was left off the list above. Typically conducted before the launch of a product, contextual inquiry is a valuable weapon in the researcher’s arsenal. So what is contextual inquiry?

As its name suggests, contextual inquiry involves researchers observing users in their natural environment and asking questions to fill in the gaps of their observations. Researchers observe the user as they perform tasks — there’s a constant dialogue between the two, with the researcher asking how and why the user is performing a certain act.

Eva decides to conduct some contextual inquiry research with a prototype app created by the product and design teams. These semi-structured interviews record users’ thoughts and gauge how quickly and easily they perform certain tasks within the app, such as booking a lesson or buying a golf cap. 

Eva conducts her research one user at a time, and puts participants at ease by letting them know that it’s not them being tested, but the GIC prototype. She observes what they do when given a task, documents what they are doing, and also engages in constant dialogue to gauge user emotions and thoughts.

Researchers should be able to decode a user’s body language and grasp their emotions even while the user is not speaking. Eva notices some seniors (aged 60+) struggle and grimace while purchasing items from the merchandise store — these nonverbal cues are important. She notes that the navigation must be easier to understand for all users, and also calls attention to a glitch in the merchandise store’s checkout process.

Ordinary surveys and interviews rely on the user’s ability to recall a process — users don’t share their reasoning, motivation and mental state. As a result, these items aren’t captured and the researcher is left with a superficial understanding of the user’s approach. This isn’t the case with contextual inquiry — it provides richer and more relevant information because users talk about what they are doing while doing it. Observing them in their natural environment (the driving ranges) gives Eva access to more accurate, user-centered information.

Contextual inquiry is crucial in shaping design choices such as requirements, personas, features and product architecture. It can be used at any point during product development, from designing a user interface to testing a product and determining any flaws. Researchers also get insight into user behavior within their product and can anticipate use cases for their app.

Kickstart your user research strategy

Eva’s research enabled GIC’s product and design teams to collect important demographic and behavioral insights about their users. They end up with a no-nonsense, easy-to-use application for golfers and coaches alike. Collating existing insights, and executing research as part of Eva’s strategy was crucial to the successful rollout of their app.

Whatever research strategy and methodology you decide to employ, it’s vitally important to document your work and have the ability to quickly share insights with peers. Everyone in the organization benefits from hearing the customer’s voice, so the company culture becomes more user-centric.

Ready to see how Marvin can help you with your user research journey?

Photo by Tom Moser on Unsplash

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