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Rethinking research: A nimble approach to user-centered design

Written by: Rad Kalaf

Published on: December 6, 2017

What if you could raise your website’s conversion rates by 200%? According to a recent study by Forrester, a well-designed user interface could deliver this, while a better UX design may yield conversion rates of up to 400%.

A well-designed interface and better UX design don’t happen by accident. You have to integrate user research throughout the project’s lifecycle to achieve them.

Dispelling the myth around user research

I once had a client who wanted his finance product to be as successful as TurboTax, but he didn’t want to put the time into user research. I did some research of my own. It turns out that, during its redesign, TurboTax had an agency spend three days gathering feedback on the TurboTax app. Successful digital experiences are built on research.

We can also look to companies that have failed due to a lack of research, like MySpace. The social network built from Friendster failed because of its lack of simplicity and plethora of unnecessary, poorly-built features. These shortcomings could have been solved with usability studies (among other things).

Ask a company to explain user research and they’ll say two words: timely and expensive. Where did this myth come from? How do we convince businesses that user research can be ad hoc, lean, and nimble?

Taking a nimble approach

I once worked on a project for a giant social media platform who was partnering with a mobile phone recycling company. To compete with Gazelle and Apple’s industry leading phone-recycling programs, they needed a better user experience on their outdated site – which lacked the necessary push to convert customers. The project included neither budget or time for user testing (I’m just as shocked as you are). But without testing my wireframes on users, I couldn’t deliver user-centered design.

I sent out a Slack message:

“@here if anyone has an old phone, you can potentially turn it in for free money! Send me a DM.”

A few people volunteered, and I made my panel as diverse as possible with a mix of different job roles, genders, age, and race. I had them perform these two simple steps:

  • Complete the process to sell their phone on the current site
  • Tell me about it: the on-site experience, the emails, the box that came in the mail, and all the marketing materials

I organized the feedback by how frequently similar complaints were made. Then, to help me develop a clear redesign strategy, I tagged each nugget of feedback by functionality, content, or design.

Building a better product

A few weeks later, I reached out to the same group for round two of user testing. I also enlisted some new users (those not primed with the initial experience) to see if feedback differed to that of users who had experienced the old product. I declared a small meeting room mine for the day and held seven sessions where I asked users to recycle their phone through my prototype built in Sketch and InVision. I user-tested my own wireframes, adjusting the flow as feedback came in. The next day, I organized everyone’s feedback and iterated my wireframes.

With a wealth of knowledge from this research, I could then speak confidently about features. For example, the project included a Facebook login extension to expedite user profile creation, but my research revealed users disliked this feature. They had to enter so much information regardless, they felt it redundant to login with Facebook, too.

Not only did this research help me build a better project, it allowed me to develop a trustworthy relationship with the client. The value of this can’t be overestimated. The best projects are those with mutual respect and understanding among the team, clients, and stakeholders.

For this project I spent about two to three days on user testing. The cost? Minimal. The value? Priceless. Spare me the eyerolls: the major misconception that user research is timely and expensive needs to be squashed.

Research tools at your disposal

There are plenty of remote tools available to help aid cheaper and faster user feedback. I’m partial to Usability Hub, which allows you to throw up designs or wireframes and quickly get feedback. There’s also Optimal Workshop, User Testing, OnePulse, User Interviews, and the list is endless. What about in-person testing? I’m glad you asked. You can use people in your office – at the end of the day, users are users.

Go in with several hypotheses to test (but avoid asking leading questions!) or simply ask them to share gut reactions as they explore the site or product. If you have the resources, actual testing facilities with eye-tracking and morae software and screened users often provide more in-depth insights. I encourage you to choose based on your budget.

But wait:

  • What’s the value for clients?
  • Aren’t we, as digital technologists (for lack of a better word), supposed to be the experts?
  • Why ask random people what they think, which will just make the project longer?

Great questions, but like I mentioned before, we aren’t doing user-centered design if we aren’t involving users. Without user testing, we’re simply taking best practices and business objectives and forcing a product.

You do not get UX on a product by involving a UX Designer. You get UX on a project by involving your users.