UX Research: Getting to Know Your Users

We all know how important it is to gather feedback from our users in order to build meaningful and successful products but how do we capture that knowledge?

No matter what user research method you use, it’s always important to have a clear goal of what you want to achieve. After all, this will dictate the way you approach the problem and get those juicy insights on how to design your product.

One great way to gather your users’ feedback is by performing user interviews. The user interviews are one of the most widely used user research methods and can give you an in-depth understanding of the problems your users are facing.

User interviews are often conducted during the exploration phase because the data you collect can help you to identify your personas and scenarios—depending on how you choose to analyze the data. The user interviews are often combined with other research methods, such as usability tests or surveys, as a way to support the findings you gather.

User interviews often refer to “semi-structured interviews” which means that the interviewer follows a structure but that is still flexible enough to follow leads in the conversation and to change the order of the topics to be discussed.

Take user interviews as an opportunity to immerse yourself in your users’ lives and connect with their history, culture, beliefs, and experiences. Use this knowledge to work on possible solutions on how to tackle problems. 

To ensure that you get the most out of your interviews, meaning that you get useful data — and not bad data—you must decide on the interview’s purpose, find your participants, and work on your questions. It’s important to design a good plan to address during the interview so that you don’t waste your participants’ time or yours.

To work on your questions, think about the topics you would like to cover in your user interview and, before you jump into the “why” questions that are a bit more invasive for the participant, try to work first on “how” and “what” questions as a warm-up.
Your questions must be precise, and yet, open enough to let your participants express their subjective opinion. Remember that what participants say may sometimes differ from what they actually do.

Be prepared to have follow-up questions if you want to dig deeper into a subject but, essentially, let the conversation flow and show the participant that you are really paying attention to what they’re saying even if the conversation gets a bit off-topic. Sometimes these moments reveal to be really surprising—e.g., they might help you discover the true reason for certain behaviors. So, don’t be afraid, leave room for some improvisation.

If you think that the conversation is getting off course, work your way to bring your participant back to the topic again. If you feel there’s nothing more to uncover, it’s time to move to the next topic.

Listening is essentially the most effective tool on your side and will surely help you to build a rapport with your participant. The way you connect with your participants is really important. If they feel comfortable, they will be more open to you.

Let’s pull some references here and learn from the best. The qualitative researchers Steinar Kvale and Svend Brinkman give us a list of 9 principles that can facilitate a good interview, some of those I briefly talked about above:

Start by asking simple questions, where your participants can describe a situation or the context of a situation: e.g., “Can you describe the last time you…?”

As already mentioned previously, the follow-up questions allow you to dig deeper into something the participant has said, try to re-frame it on your next question, or, as the participant speaks, simply encourage them to continue to elaborate on their answer by nodding, pausing or saying “mm”.

Ask participants to elaborate on what they are saying and to give examples, e.g., “Can you give me an example of that…?” or “Can you explain that in more detail…?”

If you think the participants’ answers are getting too generalized, try asking specifying questions like: “What exactly did you do?” or “How did that make you feel?”

Direct questions are the ones that introduce new topics and can be based on what the participant has said, e.g., “Do you have any experience shopping online in this x-brand?”

These types of questions are usually used when you don’t want to ask the participants directly about their experience or understand that they may answer differently when they are forced to think in someone else’s shoes, e.g., “Do you think other people might find the user interface difficult?”. However, you should analyze the answer carefully because it may reflect both the participant’s experience and what they interpret from the experience of others.

Structured questions will help you change the topic of the conversation or bring the participant back on topic. Always show the participant that you acknowledge what they said and then say something like “Let’s move on to…”

Silence is a powerful tool and you should definitely use it. The silence allows your participants to think about their answers and look for additional information relevant to the scenario. Always try to find a balance in your pauses as some participants might find it a bit uncomfortable.

This principle is so important because it ensures that you have understood what a participant just said, e.g., “You said x, am I right in understanding that…?”

Recording your interviews is always a good idea, as it allows you to focus on your participants’ answers instead of always worrying about taking notes—especially if you’re the only interviewer—and it also allows you to revisit the data as many times as you want.

One important point here is to always ask for a participant’s permission to record the session. They may not feel very comfortable but if you explain to them the reason you’re recording and how you’ll use the data, they will most likely accept.

When you’re about to deal with sensitive data that requires you and your team’s extra attention, always assure your participants that the data is going to be treated properly and used strictly for research purposes. Sometimes the best way to tackle this is by sending a GDPR agreement so everything is clear on both sides.

After you finish your user interviews, it’s time to make sense of all the data you gathered and, sometimes, that may feel overwhelming with the volume of the information. But do not fear, analyzing the data is an opportunity to make it easy for other people to understand how you reached your conclusions.

If you are clear about the process, you’ll have more chances of gaining peoples’ trust in the validity of your results. Proper analysis takes time so it’s important not to jump right to conclusions. If you are short on time, try not to skip steps and instead narrow the scope of your study.

The nature of your project will determine the way you analyze the data, however, one of the most common methods for analyzing qualitative data is by performing a thematic analysis.

Thematic analysis is a flexible method that you can use for both explorative or deductive studies, meaning that it suits you when you don’t have a clear idea of what you might find or when you know exactly what you are interested in. The most important thing is that you respect the data that you are analyzing and keep it representative of your participants.

A thematic analysis aims to identify the most common patterns/data and map it into themes, so it will require a lot of moving back and forth with the data set.

The authors and qualitative researchers in psychology, Virginia Braun and Victory Clarke, have developed a six-step process to guide us in attaining tangible conclusions: 

Start by reviewing all the notes from your interviews and familiarizing yourself as much as you can with the data.

Assign a code to each bit of information that you find relevant (usually phrases or sentences). The code is intended to describe an idea or a feeling.

Then, after assigning the codes, start sorting the codes into themes. This is an iterative process, where you move codes back and forth until they make sense as themes. Remember that the themes are much broader and involve the interpretation of the codes. 

This is also the time to evaluate if a code is still relevant or not, but this varies according to what you are trying to find out. 

At this stage, you review and ensure that the themes are an accurate representation of the data. Read through all the bits of information related to the codes and see if they still support the theme or if there are overlapping themes.

It’s ok to have bits of information fitting into multiple themes or to discover new themes that you have missed. As an iterative process, keep adjusting until you feel there’s nothing more to add to the analysis.

Now that you feel comfortable with your themes, it’s time to name and describe them. The name should be descriptive and catchy. The description is a story about the theme and should describe what’s interesting about it.

Talk about how it relates to other themes and to the goal of the research. If the story is too complex, you might consider going to the previous step (reviewing themes) and think about your themes again.

Your report should always provide enough information about the project, including the type of user research you used (e.g., a semi-structured interview), the number of participants, and the process you used to analyze the data. Contextualize your conclusions, and show participants quotes and the description of the themes so it’s easy for everyone to understand. Your reports can also include personas and user scenarios as a result of your analysis.

The report can be divided into two parts, one containing a summary of your findings and the second a more detailed explanation of the research and analysis.

By now you should have a pretty good idea of how to conduct a user interview and how to analyze your participants’ insights. Being able to understand what users feel about a certain topic or their perception of your product is a powerful tool.

Use user interviews during the exploration phase of a project or each time you feel the need to learn more about something (e.g., observed behavior) and always create a rapport with your participants. It’s important to make them feel comfortable so the conversation flows naturally.
When you finally get your hands on the data, don’t skip steps. Instead, cut back on the project scope and be more concise with your outcomes.

Take the user research as a way to inspire your designs and evaluate the feasibility of your solutions.

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