Paul Rouke
Founder & Director of Optimisation
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  • User Research

18th Jan 2010

7 min

Whether its referred to as user research, customer research, field studies, qualitative research or one of the other terms used, finding out the wants and needs of people who use websites, intranets and software is a crucial part of designing usable solutions which deliver return-on-investment.

Here I want to share with you 5 tips when conducting this type of one-to-one research:

1) Give the person you are speaking to the confidence that their input is truly valued

Many people, especially those who have never taken part in this type of research before, think that there input won’t be valuable, for any number of reasons. This could include:

  • they don’t use the website or system often
  • they have never done this type of activity before
  • they have never been asked for their opinion before
  • they don’t feel their role is very important, so why would their opinions be important

We tend to give people cofidence in these situations by:

  • explaining to them the approach that the user research is taking
  • re-iterate during the meeting how valuable their views and insights are
  • explain that this isn’t just a one-off experience and that gaining input from people such as themselves is a fundamental part to the website or intranet improvement process going forward
  • ask whether they would like to be involved in further elements of the research and design process

It can be quite remarkable experiencing a persons confidence grow, from at the start where they are very apprehensive and introverted to becoming very passionate and open to sharing their views.

2) Give the person your full attention – keep your head up!

Rather than try and carry out the face-to-face meeting as well as making notes throughout on the key points being made, simply voice record the meeting (asking permission first of course) to allow you to give the person your full attention.

Benefits of voice recording the meeting include:

  • the conversation is much more natural
  • it ensures you will never miss a vital piece of feedback whilst you are making a note of a previous comment
  • you are paying much more attention to what the person is saying, which in turns helps you think of which questions and prompts should follow next
  • the person feels fully engaged rather than looking at the top of your head for parts of the meeting
  • if you to choose to quote the person in the research report and findings work you do after, you ensure the quote is 100% accurate and note based on your notes

A few things to consider on voice recording meetings:

  • if like us, due to the sheet amount of valuable insights and comments that each meeting contains, you choose to get full transcriptions of each meeting, this is a very time consuming exercise and one which we definetly recommend you outsource
  • you may also be thinking of video recording the meetings, especially if (as I will come on to later) you also use these meetings to carry out user testing. You need to be aware that this will usually highten the sense of apprehension for the person which can affect their confidence in fully engaging with the process

3) Ask open, probing questions

Being asked to share your views on a particular website or company intranet is very much a one-off scenario (unless of course you are adopting a true user experience design approach and will be engaging with that person throughout the design and development process). However familiar with a system the person is, it takes certain types of questions to get people to open up and share the types of insights that will be of most value in your research.

Typical questions we might ask include:

  • Can you describe the reasons why you typically [add in different user scenarios]?
  • Can you explain the approach you tend to take when [add in different user scenarios]?
  • What improvements do you think would make your job/experience easier and more effective?
  • At [add in various areas of the website or intranet], what information are you looking for and why?
  • Can you explain a situation where you haven’t been able to find what you are looking for, and what have been your next steps?

It is vital that your questioning doesn’t lead the person down a particular route on purpose – the more natural and open ended you make the questioning the more likely you are of gaining really valuable insights.

4) Bring the user research to life by incorporating user testing

Providing the research you are doing is for an existing website or company intranet, bring a greater degree of engagement and value to the research by incorporating user testing into the meeting.

Website testing or system testing, not user testing
Its vital to stress at this point that when you explain about this to the person, you are clear that you are wanting to test the usability and effectiveness of the website or system, not their capabilities or ability to remember where certain information is.

Key points when incorporating testing to user research:

  • avoid the temptation to use a lab testing environment – let the user work in their own comfortable surroundings, whether this is at home or at their desk at work
  • don’t let the person blame themselves if they are having trouble with a particular task for a scenario
  • plan ahead with typical scenarios, and be as descriptive as possible
  • ensure that the scenarios you are asking them to experience have some correlation to their potential wants and needs
  • explain about the importance of them adopting the think out load approach, which you need for both your own benefit during the meeting but more importantly for when the voice recording is transcribed
  • once it is clear they are unable to complete a task at a certain point, prompt them in the right direction and then let them continue on with their think out loud approach

5) Don’t rely on first impressions

Quite often the person that you are speaking to immediately makes it clear that they know their input won’t be very useful. This can be for a number of reasons:

  • they only ever use a very small element of the website or intranet, and that can be explained in a matter of seconds
  • they hardly ever use the website or intranet
  • they are against change within their organisation and so they aren’t wanting to disrupt anything
  • they dismiss the very fact that you are asking for their feedback, and are apprehensive that what they say will make any difference or actually be used to actually make improvements

This where the first four tips all come in to play – by giving confidence to the person, providing your full attention, asking probing questions and bringing the session to life by letting them use the website/intranet for themself, you will often find that the people who on first impressions seem to be offering the least amount of valuable feedback actually turn out the complete opposite.


User research is a highly valuable way of gaining end user insights, but it isn’t something that comes easily. There are many elements to carrying out successful user research and I hope these tips will come in useful for people who are already carrying this type of research, or who are considering it.

Further reading

You may also like to take a look at some of these related articles and presentations.

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