User Research in Human-centered Product Design: Getting Set for Success

Oksana Cyrwus
Software Solutions Architect
April 13, 2021

Human-centered design is an approach to problem solving that leverages the human perspective in all steps of the process. When thinking about Human-centered Design (HCD), many humans primarily think about user research and classic usability testing. User research is certainly an important part of HCD practice in that it helps place people at the center of the product design process and helps optimize outcomes that meet their needs, contexts, constraints and behaviors.

User research covers a wide range of complex and more straightforward methods. User research can mean anything, from field studies, to usability studies of varied flavors, to quantitative evaluation of user experience (UX) design, all that are integral to working in a human-centered design process.

So how do you set yourself up for success when planning your research?

The intent of this post is not to define the process of user research, but to offer considerations for planning the research and selecting research methods.

Know what questions you seek to answer

In order to conduct effective research you must first define the objective - understand what you need to learn.

  • What are the questions you are looking to answer?
  • What assumptions do you have that need to be validated?
  • What do you need to learn about your users?
  • Why do you need to obtain this information?

Here we have the foundation for identifying the research goal and forming the research hypothesis. This makes the selection of research methods much more purposeful and strategic.

Predefine implementation of research results

When conducting user research it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. Sometimes the questions asked during the research seem significant, but the responses to these questions will not change your course of action.

It is crucial to consider how you will use the information obtained from users before going into the research phase.

This extra step will help you optimize everyone’s time on activities that produce higher value.

You’ll also want to understand the needs of stakeholders. What data points do your stakeholders seek? What do they need for effective decision making throughout the process of product design?

Understanding the needs of stakeholders is just as important as the needs of end-users.

You could design the greatest product in the world, but it may never see the light of day unless stakeholders are satisfied.

Anticipate how you will document and share results

Sharing synthesis of user research is as important as the research itself.

Think about the environment you work in and scale the amount of synthesized documentation to fit.

If you work in a small, fast-paced team and need to make quick decisions, you may skip the documentation altogether and instead invite your colleagues to participate in research as observers - if at all possible.

If you work in a corporate environment or government where paper-trail is important, then the amount of synthesized documentation should match.

In perhaps all circumstances, it is best to capture the when, what, how and why in the research summary. The research summary should outline what was researched, the key results and most significant action items.

Regardless of how sizable your synthesis documentation is, the research summary should always be one of the very first pages shared with the team. This summary will not only increase the odds that people read it, but will also serve as a quick scannable reminder of what you discover later down the road.

Selecting UX research method

Many factors come into play when determining which research method to use: cost, time, resources, context and more.

Good research takes time. Some methods require larger time investment than others, e.g. behavioral research where we observe interactions with the product in real time vs. quantitative methods like satisfaction surveys that can be conducted asynchronously.

The quality of behavioral research outcomes is very much dependent on time constraints and availability of research subjects. A quantitative method, like a survey, requires a certain number of participants to present reliable results, especially when conducted upon a regular cadence.

UX researchers need to stay in contact with business stakeholders. Stakeholder inputs are necessary to ensure that research maintains alignment with business objectives.

Focus on the information you need to gather, consider the stage of the design process you’re in and the time constraints you have when selecting a research method. Even though most research methods are focused on answering specific types of questions, they can be creatively altered to your specific situation. Afterall, that is how “mixed” research methods are born.

Wrapping Up

In a modern oversaturated digital environment, users have come to expect friction-free, optimized experiences.

Human-centered design is about outcomes and measurable changes in user behavior that indicate success and value. Your ultimate goal is to create a product that suits your users needs. That said, it is critical to embrace HCD at the inception of the product development process.

User research is an integral tool in your HCD toolkit and decisions about when and how to research become easy when you focus on basics:

  • the problem you aspire to solve
  • where you are in the design process
  • what you need to learn
  • how you will use acquired data to achieve your business objective.