June 11, 2021

How to Get the Most Out of Your User and Customer Research?

If you’re reading this, that means you’ve started your journey into UX and customer research, or you’re considering it. However, just because you and your team are conducting research doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it at the right time or in the right way to reap the full benefits for your products and services.

We know we’ve talked about it before, but let’s recap – what are the benefits of conducting UX and design research? If done right, here are the benefits of user research…

  • Discover areas for improvement

  • Make informed product and service decisions

  • Find innovative solutions, and

  • Delight your customers in unexpected ways!

Types of User Research:

There are three main types of research used in both UX design and HCD (human-centred design). These should be used in conjunction with one another, and we highly recommend using them in this order:

  1. Exploratory research (interviews, diary studies, observations, surveys, and more)

  2. Generative research (co-design workshops with users)

  3. Evaluative research (user testing, rapid prototyping, service pilots, etc.)

Generally speaking, you would kick-off an engagement with exploratory research to better understand the problem, user’s needs, characteristics, motivations, and more. Exploratory research is also known as discovery research. Subsequently, once you have insights from the research, you can use generative research methods to brainstorm possible solutions with real users and customers through an exercise like a co-design workshop. Finally, evaluative research is the third type of research we use. Evaluative research is the most commonly understood as usability testing. When performing evaluative research, you create prototypes and validate your ideas, features, and design concepts with users and customers. This allows you to get feedback on the design in order to arrive at a solution that genuinely meets your user’s needs. Evaluative research can and should be conducted during all stages of the design process — all the way to final implementation, and beyond!

In summary, you need all three types of user research to fully reap the rewards for your products and services!

How does UX or design research differ from marketing research?

This is a question we get asked frequently, and it’s understandable given the similarities across the disciplines! However, there are a few core differences between UX design and marketing research we must keep in mind. Primarily, the purpose of marketing research (including surveys and focus groups) is to understand buyer perceptions and purchasing preferences. Conversely, UX and design research are principally concerned with user behaviours, underlying motivations, and challenges, focusing on making the design better and improving user experience.

To understand this better, take a look at a few of our recent blogs on this very topic:


5 Common Pitfalls of Conducting User Research

Now that we’re clear on the reasons you should conduct user research, the types of research you can involve, and how UX research differs from marketing research — we’re ready to talk about the common pitfalls we see many companies making! This is especially pertinent to companies who may be lower on the UX Maturity Scale, who are just starting down the UX path, and who may not be experiencing the benefits previously described.

1. Starting research too late

Many companies will only want to do research once they…

  • Have already come up with the product, service, or feature idea,

  • Had the concept vetted by higher ups,

  • Created a roadmap and action plan,

  • Started the design process, and

  • Kick-started the implementation process…

Then suddenly, they’ll realize they have a lot of unanswered questions. How do their users actually plan to use this feature? What use cases are essential? Why did our user need this in the first place? After all of this work has been done, teams may decide to talk to real customers when these questions arise.

Here is where the pitfall of starting research too late comes in — if you are only talking to customers once most of the work has been done, then any feedback they give you (even if it blows up the whole concept!) can only be used to a certain extent. Your team won’t want to tear up all the work they’ve done to date in order to start fresh. That would mean that all the time and money spent on arriving at that point in the design or development process was wasted. If you fall into this camp, it’s okay! It’s not always obvious when you need to start doing user research, especially if you aren’t an HCD expert. Our advice? To always start as early as you can! Conduct exploratory research before any ideas are truly solidified, and certainly before you dig into design or implementation.


2. Only doing user testing

Similar to Pitfall #1 — we commonly see that when companies are ready to dive into research, (again, once the design is complete) they’ll skip exploratory and generative research, moving right into evaluative research. In other words, they’ll perform light usability testing, prototyping, and concept walkthroughs. This evaluative research is good, and we never want to discourage testing, but you’ll only gain so much insight through usability testing. While you’ll get some good feedback on usability, the feedback you receive will likely be more granular/specific. User’s (who are generally nice people) don’t like to rip apart something that they can clearly see people have put a lot of time and effort into creating. By only doing evaluative research, you might miss some critical insights into what your user’s pain points truly are and how you can solve them in a more unique and innovative way.

User Interview Workbook - This image directs you to Outwitly's free workbook that prepares and teaches UX designers how to conduct interviews like a pro.

3. Not talking to enough or to the “right” users/customers

This is also a common mistake we see amongst companies doing some form of user research. They’ll plan to talk to a few customers to gather general thoughts on their product or idea and get some early feedback. But they will only reach out (usually via account managers) to their most trusted customers or their biggest clients. They won’t spend the time necessary to appropriately recruit for research and find a diverse sample set. Certainly, they won’t be interviewing enough people to actually see patterns and commonalities in the data. If only one person tells you something, it might not actually mean much, but if five people tell you the same thing without being prompted, then you might be onto something! Further, think about all you’d gather by having 20 people giving you feedback. In addition to getting all of the valuable context and detailed nuances that come from sitting with an individual for 60 minutes, asking them every question under the sun as it relates to your product or service, you’re also uncovering their deeper desires, goals, and challenges.


4. Using proxies and thinking that’s enough

We talked about “proxies” or “proto personas” in a previous blog. Proxy users are people in your organization who are not customers, but are close enough to the customers you’re studying to serve as substitutes. For example, they have a lot of product knowledge or may support real users as part of their job. We see this A LOT! Instead of researching users and customers, companies will turn to their proxy users as the “next best thing.” But, BEWARE. OF. PROXIES! While they are treasured team members to have when working on the design and great to ask questions to in a pinch, they are NOT your user. If you are going to do research, do it with real customers and users!

5. Only using surveys

Of all the pitfalls, this one might actually be the MOST common! We made an entire blog post on customer surveys and why they just aren’t enough.

Value Vs. Time of Research

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We use this graph to coach our clients into understanding the value of research. The biggest and most valuable insights with the greatest ROI (return on investment) will come from the discovery (exploratory) research you do early on. While we firmly believe that research and usability testing should continue throughout the design and development processes, its value decreases with the more rounds of research you do. In other words, the first time you conduct a set of interviews, observations, or even a first usability test, you’ll learn the most, influencing many changes. But, the more usability testing you do, the fewer or smaller insights you’ll gain. This finding is especially true when you have talented UX designers with a solid understanding of usability best practices on your team.

To recap, if you’re testing too late in the process (see Common Pitfall #1) then you might not be getting as much value and insight as you would if you started with exploratory research early on. Remember to invest in discovery/exploratory research up front to ensure you’re creating a product that truly fills a need.

How to make the most of user research?

We hope you can see what might be going wrong with your current research process, and again, if you identify with any of the above pitfalls — that is totally okay! They are common, and you are not alone. So, how can you turn it around, or what can you do differently for the next project?

Our tips for getting the best insights and the most value from research are:

  1. Research early in the process

  2. Involve real users – Aim to find a diverse set of users/customers with different needs and challenges. Recruit 3-4 individuals per customer type or segment.

  3. Start with interviews – Conduct in-depth, one-on-one interviews with users and ask everyone the same questions. It’s amazing the insights you’ll get from this simple research method and it can be done remotely! Download our FREE Plan a Stellar User Interview Workbook!

  4. Try your best to utilize all three forms of research (exploratory, generative, and evaluative!)

For easy-to-use and delightful products and services, conducting UX and design research is key. To get the most out of your customer research, we recommend diving into all three research methods: exploratory, generative, and evaluative. If you’re in the beginning stages of adopting UX as a practice, that’s okay! We all start somewhere, but it’s important to implement as soon as possible. Trust us — your user experience will benefit from the extra attention to detail.

Resources we like:

Toptal’s UX Research Methods and the Path to User Empathy

Forbes post on A Useful Experience: Why Usability Testing Is Essential To UX Design

UX Planet’s How to Communicate the Value of User Research

The Bottom Line: Why Good UX Design Means Better Business on Forbes.com