11 December 2011

UX Research Principles I

I've spent a lot of time consulting for user research issues. My background and training have made research methods and statistics a real passion for me. I'm going to be writing a series of articles about how to undertake effective user research. This one is the first step: how to write an effective questions.
I like to think of myself as an experienced UX researcher. Being a psychologist, I've come across a lot of research methods that are not widely known but are very useful. This helps me to deal with problems better than if I didn't know them; and I've learned (the hard way!) how to use research methods to their best advantage.

But often in research, I've seen people diving straight in to decide upon the number of participants and research method. Being pro-active is commendable; but there is one important step that needs to be made before any of this other stuff can be done.

Set your questions.

It sounds obvious, so obvious that most people look puzzled when I say that we need to spend time nailing them down. But this comes from close on 15 years of research experience including a PhD and peer-reviewed publish articles detailing new research methods.

So why is it important to set the questions first? Well the questions determine everything else. They are the foundation of all research. With questions, you can then determine how they can be answered which implies what data you are going to collect and how to analyse it. When you have that, you can then decide upon a research method, then the target population, how to get your sample population, then your materials and then administer the lot. Finally, you can do the research.

What, step back a bit. All this comes from the questions?

Well yes. If you don't have the questions, how do you know what to measure? You cannot know what method you'll use or how many people you need. In that sequence, everything depends upon its preceding items. You cannot decide how many people to test unless you know what you're doing. A survey will need maybe 100 participants; user interviews maybe 6.

Some general pointers:

  • Take time over the questions and make sure they're good. If youve ever asked a statistician for advice, there's a good chance they'll ask you, "What's your research question?" or "What are you trying to find out about?"
  • Sit down with others and collaborate on formalising the research questions. Try to write them down like experimental hypotheses - something you can test.
  • Involving product managers, project managers, business owners, and other stakeholders can be a good for getting them to buy in to research. Just don't let it get bogged down with too much discussion; but ensure the questions are good.
  • Make a statement that summarises what the research is all about. This is good for explaining to people what is going on. The classic example mission statement is JFKs "by the end of the decade, we will put a man on the moon". A research statement might be something like, "What will make people use a social network site for cats?" If in doubt, always refer to this statement. If something isn't covered by it, then exclude it. This is why it's vital to work on making a good statement.
Once you have the questions established, you can work out how the answers to each question can be measured. More in the next article.

If you need any advice or help, leave a comment. If you have significant work on UX research that you think I can help with, you can contact me at alan@thoughtintodesign.com.

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