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Five research methods from user-centered design and why to use them

It can be challenging to create user-centered solutions for complex products and services. Whether you are testing how people use your product or evaluating your website’s structure and content, user research can help you make your product, service, or website more useful and usable. The research techniques we outline in this article will:

  • Help you learn more about your users
  • Challenge assumptions you may have about your product or service and its users
  • Reveal how customers use your product and what problems they encounter

This isn’t an exhaustive list of research methods, just some research options to inform data-driven decisions about products and services.

Field study

What a field study is

A field study is a method to understand users in their natural environment. This type of research helps us understand what users think as they interact with a product or a service. Field studies can involve usability testing, direct observations, and a variety of interview methods.

Why use a field study

Many types of research take place in a lab and may rely on recruiting participants to come in during business hours. Field studies allow you to reach a variety of people who may not have been able to come into a lab during business hours or who don’t receive recruitment calls. Learn more about a field study we led to understand the experiences and needs of public transit riders through interviews and direct observation.

In-home accessibility study

What an in-home accessibility study is

Much like field studies, in-home accessibility studies involve researchers visiting participants’ homes to observe and evaluate how they use a service or a product with their preferred assistive technologies. Researchers can learn a lot by observing how participants have set up their own ways to navigate products and services that may not have the features they need to be built in.

Why use an in-home accessibility study

Your organization should deploy in-home usability studies to build user empathy and buy-in for inclusive design. These studies help identify accessibility and usability challenges that aren’t discoverable by automated testing. When these issues are addressed, they increase user satisfaction and make customers more willing to engage and invest in your product.

Contextual Inquiry

What contextual inquiry is

Contextual inquiry is a semi-structured interview method where researchers observe users performing tasks in their natural environment and interview them to fill any gaps early in the research design process. Among the main tenets of contextual inquiry is to observe customers’ behavior while completing tasks and engage them to uncover patterns that guide their own actions. That’s why researchers spend a significant amount of time in users’ natural environments to observe their interaction with a product or service. For example, a contextual inquiry could be used to understand how drivers of a ride sharing app manage both driving and ride requests. Researchers would join drivers in their vehicles during trips, interview drivers about their experience, and observe how they behave with both the app and riders.

Why use contextual inquiry

Contextual inquiry can help develop insights that inform future iterations on your product or service by helping you understand what users really do. This research method is helpful for generating ideas about new features that focus on the user’s unmet needs while meeting business goals. Furthermore, contextual inquiry helps you better understand and define your product’s objectives and derive meaning that both clarify and more deeply understand customers’ needs and goals.

Wayfinding research

What wayfinding research is

Wayfinding is how people use information to navigate their physical and digital environments. It can describe how users find their way around a live streaming service, an airport, a transit station, a library, and more. Good wayfinding considers information in an environment that enhances the user experience at every step. In wayfinding research, researchers will observe how users navigate their physical or digital environments.

Why use wayfinding research

The easier it is for users to understand signs, cues, and searches to navigate a website or a physical environment, the more likely they are to return to your website or physical environment, find what they need and accomplish their goals. This is likely to increase engagement levels, conversion rates, and satisfaction, and decrease abandonment levels, calls to customer support, and negative experiences. For example, Anthro-Tech conducted a wayfinding research study with Sound Transit in Seattle, WA, to learn how dynamic digital signs displaying real-time arrival information fit in the rider’s journey and how rider’s needs could be met through the placement and display of user-centered information.

Tree testing

What tree testing is

A tree test is a research method used when developing a user-centered information architecture. Participants show where they would expect to find information to complete their top tasks using our proposed structure. This allows us to evaluate the effectiveness of our categories and labels and make changes to better represent users' mental models. Through tree testing, you can learn more in-depth information about how users navigate your website.

Why use tree testing

Tree testing can be done remotely and in short sessions, which helps reduce costs and makes recruitment much easier than traditional usability studies. Tree testing produces fast results. Researchers can analyze the data more quickly than usability sessions, which require more resources and time-. Tree testing is a cost-effective research approach to evaluate the discoverability of content on your website. The more users express confidence navigating the structure of your site, the higher the conversion and engagement rates will be.

How to choose your research method

Consider using these five research techniques when tackling complex user-centered design challenges around your product or service. The common goal behind using these research techniques lies in getting to know your users. Different methods will be appropriate depending on your resources and the information you are hoping to find. The diversity of participants, type of data you are looking for (qualitative vs. quantitative), and product goals should all inform how you choose what type of research to do.

If you’ve narrowed down the type of research you want to do, but don’t know if it will be best to do it in-person or online, read our blog post.

If you need guidance for building out your research plan, get in touch.

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