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Tutorial 3: How To Plan A UX Research Session

Tutorial 3: How To Plan A UX Research Session

“Hi there! 💁I’m Chloe from the Curriculum Team here at CareerFoundry. The Curriculum Team works with industry-leading experts to design, write and edit our programs—and then we ensure they’re kept thoroughly up-to-date. The tech world changes quickly, so we need to stay on our toes!”

So what are we going to do today?

In the previous tutorial, we introduced some common UX research methods. Today we’re going to show you how to plan a user research session. We’ll look at how to set meaningful research objectives, and briefly touch upon research tools. We’ll also show you how to recruit participants for your user research. Finally, we’ll round off with some useful tips and best practices. By the end of this tutorial, you’ll know exactly what goes into a successful UX research session!

We’ve divided this lesson as follows:

  1. How to set meaningful research objectives
  2. How to gather the right UX research tools
  3. How to recruit user research participants
  4. Tips for making sure your research session runs smoothly
  5. Practical exercise

Let’s make a start!

1. How to set meaningful research objectives 

When conducting a user research session, it’s essential to have a clear goal in mind. What do you hope to learn from the session? What information and insights do you need in order to move the design process forward?

As with choosing a research method, your objectives will vary depending on what stage you’re at in the design process. Before you formulate a specific goal, think broadly about what you hope to gain from your research. Some wider research goals might be:

  • To identify users’ general attitudes towards a problem or concept
  • To gather user feedback on two competing designs
  • To see what kinds of tasks users perform, and in what context
  • To collect data points in order to validate or invalidate initial design ideas

Once you’ve established a wider goal, you can then narrow it down to a more specific research objective. At this stage, it can be useful to frame your goal as a question; this will help to steer your research sessions and keep you on track. For example: If your overarching goal is to identify users’ general attitudes to, say, online dating, your specific research objective (or question) could be something like “How do people in their forties and fifties feel about online dating?”. If you’re looking to pinpoint certain user behaviors in relation to a website you’ve designed, you might look at “What steps do users take to complete a purchase on my website?”

It’s OK (and advisable!) to keep your research goals narrow. You can’t possibly find out everything you need to know in one single research session, so it’s best to focus on one well-defined goal at a time. You can think of each research session as a jigsaw piece; ideally, you’ll conduct several user research sessions throughout the project, gradually building up an overall picture.

With a clear research goal in mind, you can begin to think about the logistics of your user research session—starting with tools.

2. How to gather the right UX research tools

The key to successful user research is in the planning, and that means gathering everything you need well in advance. Now, when we say “user research session”, we’re not just talking about in-person sessions—we’re referring to all kinds of user research, including online questionnaires and remote interviews. Whichever research technique you’re using, the same rules apply: Careful preparation is a must!

So: Before you conduct any kind of user research, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got all the necessary tools and equipment to hand. The exact tools you need will vary depending on your chosen research method, so it’s a good idea to make a checklist in advance.

If you’re conducting an in-person session, such as a user interview or a focus group, you’ll need:

  • Pens, paper, and Post-it notes
  • Recording equipment for capturing video or audio (make sure you have the user’s consent)
  • A list of questions or topic areas you’d like to cover
  • Refreshments(this will help to put your participants at ease!)

If you’re testing a digital prototype, you’ll need:

  • Computers or laptops set up with the relevant software (e.g. Prott, Proto.io)
  • Screen-recording tools so you can capture, and later analyze, how users interact with the prototype 

For remote UX research, it’s important to have all the relevant links to hand—be it a link to an online survey you’ve created, or a link to the digital prototype or webpage you want to test. And, if you’re conducting a card sort, you’ll of course need to have your topics and cards ready (but more on that in tutorial six!).

By now, you have a clear research objective and a comprehensive checklist firmly in place, which means you’re ready to recruit some research participants!

3. How to recruit user research participants

Finding people to take part in your user research can seem like a daunting task, but it’s easier than you might think. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need hundreds of participants in order to gather valuable research data. In fact, the Nielsen Norman Group claim that “the best results come from testing no more than 5 users, and running as many small tests as you can afford.” With that in mind, focus on quality over quantity when recruiting your research participants.

First and foremost, think about the “Who”. In other words, what kinds of people do you want to recruit? You want your research participants to represent your target audience as closely as possible, so start by coming up with a list of ideal traits. If you’re designing an over-40s dating app, for example, you’ll want to recruit people who:

  • Are over the age of 40
  • Own a smartphone
  • Regularly use dating apps

Can you see how even this very brief list has narrowed down your pool significantly? Once you’ve got a clear idea of the kinds of users you’re looking for, it’ll be much easier to find them. Which brings us onto the “Where”…

Where and how you recruit participants really depends on your budget and the type of product you’re designing. If you have the resources, you could pay a specialist recruitment firm. However, in most cases, you’ll probably need to take the initiative yourself. Here are some simple yet effective ways to recruit research participants:

  • Word of mouth: Tap into your network of friends, friends-of-friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances.
  • Social media: Advertise on the likes of Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook to reach a large audience.
  • Existing customers: If you’ve got access to a database of existing or past customers, this is an excellent place to find research participants.
  • Guerilla recruiting: Approach people in a public place—say, a coffee shop—and ask them to take part in a quick research session. 

Depending on the nature of your research and how time-consuming it’s likely to be, you might consider offering an incentive to encourage people to take part. You can learn more about where and how to find research participants in this guide to DIY recruiting for user research.

4. User research tips and best practices

At this point, you’re well on your way to conducting an effective UX research session. You’ve got your research objectives to hand, you’ve gathered all the tools you need, and you’ve recruited some suitable participants. What else can you do to make sure the session runs smoothly? Here are some simple yet crucial best practices to bear in mind.

  • Put your users at ease: When conducting in-person UX research, take a few minutes at the start of the session to break the ice. Set the scene and provide clear, jargon-free instructions on what’s about to happen. Reassure your users that they can be honest with their feedback, and that no one’s going to be offended if they criticize the design! And, if you’re recording the session in any way, make sure you get express permission to do so.
  • Remain impartial: In order to obtain useful and authentic insights, you need your users to act and interact as naturally as possible, so keep intervention to a minimum. Don’t try to influence your users or steer their behavior in any way; stick to open-ended questions and don’t make assumptions!
  • Get organized: We’ve said it before, but it’s worth mentioning again; organization is key. In addition to having all the necessary tools in place, if you’ve got people helping you to run the session, make sure everybody is clear on their role. Who will be taking notes? Who will be asking the questions? Who will be observing the users? It might be worth having a practice run with friends or colleagues to iron out any kinks—user research for your user research session, if you will!

Today we’ve provided a somewhat universal guide to conducting a research session. The finer details will depend on the research method you’re using, so, when following this guide, be sure to plan each session with the specifics in mind.

5. Practical exercise

That brings us to the end of tutorial three—we’re making quite some progress! As always, we’ll finish up with a practical exercise.

In this lesson, we looked at all the components that make up a successful user research session, from meaningful research objectives to the right tools and participants. Using the template provided below, can you briefly plan a research session for the following scenario?

You’re designing an app which aims to connect dog owners with fellow dog owners in their local area. The app will also provide information on local walking spots and dog-related events. Before you get started on the design, you’re keen to refine the concept and see how people feel about the idea. You’d also like to see if there are any other features your target group might desire from such an app. This is a personal project, so you’re working with a small budget, but you’ve been working as a dog-sitter so you do have some contacts! 

Template for planning a UX research session

  1. My research objective (or question) is:
  2. The best place to conduct my research session would be:
  3. I will need the following tools and equipment:
  4. My ideal research participants will be (list three traits):
  5. I could find suitable participants (where): 

Are you starting to see how user research can be planned and executed within the context of a real design project? For the purpose of this exercise, feel free to keep your research plan brief. In the coming lessons, we’ll look at specific user research tools and go through some specific research methods—leaving you well-equipped to plan a research session right down to the last detail!

It’s a wrap!

Now you have a universal guide you can apply to planning any kind of user research session. In the next tutorial, we’ll take a look at some essential user research tools. See you then!

For more tips and advice on conducting user research, check out the following:

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