User Research

Principles I Operate On

User understanding and empathy inspire meaningful subtleties in a team’s work that produce deep user engagement. Quality user research sharpens the intuition of engineers, designers, marketers, and business dev teammates to correctly make the countless decisions needed for the user.

User empathy gives an organization a common purpose and a soul. The more political weight users have in an organization, the more meritocratic the team will be. This is best achieved by employing a variety of research methods with help across departments and levels of company hierarchy.

User Research Methods

Utilizing various types of research amounts to more comprehensive understanding.

  • Qualitative Research conveys conceptual, subjective, psychological, or behavioral impact. Stories, graphics, and images permeate every organization.
  • Quantitative Research conveys numerical significance. Sales numbers and website or product analytics are the most common metrics tracked.
  • Ethnographic Research and contextual inquiries are conducted within the natural environment of a user with the purposes of understanding the relationship between them and their typical physical and cultural surroundings, and how a product design changes it or is influenced by it. Teammates closest to the front lines have most visibility and vested interest in this type of research.
  • Formal Research or structured research has a well-defined plan and intended outcome, typically with a more contractual user recruitment process.
  • Informal Research or semi-structured research has a loosely-defined plan and intended outcome and is conducted without strict regard to user agreements or physical setting.
  • Guerilla Research is reduced-scope research of any feasible means to a team operating within tight financial or time constraints. There is almost always room for more of it. No one’s timeline and budget is limitless and designers should always be surfacing insights where opportunities present themselves.

Interviews are the best way to discover unknown unknowns. User interviews illuminate details of personas and product requirements you cannot effectively learn about in any other way.

User Research Process

It is rare for a topic to not already have available literature to learn from. It is much quicker and cheaper to learn from existing research than to conduct it. Utilizing available information is always step one.

Design teams need different types of insights at different phases of the designs.

  1. Ideation: Ensuring your design is truly relevant to the target user
    a. Generative / Exploratory Research: Before it is even known what the problem is that presents most opportunity for a team, research to map out a space is required. Teammates with strategic focus must be doing this continuously.
    b. Descriptive / Explanatory Research: Once a problem statement is formulated with as much precision feasible, it’s time to explore all possible solutions for business viability, user desirability, and technical feasibility.

  2. Iteration: Ensuring your designs are usable and desirable
    a. Evaluative Research / Usability Testing: Having a series of tests that measure a user’s success with all intended features is the most directly helpful testing for engineers. In the course of completing these tests, though, designers can refine the user stories from which features are scoped.

  3. Optimization: To measure the results of your design
    a. Casual Research: This is also referred to as “user observance” or “informal usability testing.” Watching people use and interact with a design surfaces insights about their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors throughout their journey that are useful for further iteration and refinement.

The stages of conducting user research are:

  1. Planning
  2. Recruitment
  3. Facilitation
  4. Transcription
  5. Analysis
  6. Synthesis (with other documentation)


Quality research starts with great questions. The right questions are:

  • Goal-Oriented: Identifying the phase of design your team is in, the type of research you are conducting, and your reasons for conducting that type of research will focus your attention on the insights you intend to surface.
  • Open: Rather than embedding biases or assumptions into questions, help the user understand what they’re being asked in a way that they can choose whatever manner to give and direction to take their answers.
  • Conversational: It’s of utmost importance for participants to feel comfortable and engaged. When there is a flow of ideas that build on each other, deeper insights are surfaced and produce more comprehensive user understanding.

Including stakeholders in the planning process is vital to avoid duplicate work and earn buy-in. Stakeholders include anyone the design impacts. Depending on the context, they can be people internally in executive or managerial levels, fellow design and product teammates, or even vendors or particular user-types externally.

Get input from target users throughout all feasible stages of the design process. Sanity check yourself and your team, identify and test all design assumptions that you can. It’s easy to pile layers of assumptions on top of each other, but eventually it either becomes too complicated to test or a monumental waste of work that financially hurts a company.


Extreme users have needs and wants that are most easy to detect. And most of the time, other users share them in common. Designing for the extreme users is an effective strategy also because they are usually your most loyal.


There is always more to learn about facilitating higher-quality research. Making it instinctive requires reading and deliberate practice. Optimizations include: research effectiveness, reducing bias, maximizing unplanned takeaways (user, strategy, or marketing), qualifying the user to give quality feedback, minimizing no-shows, etc.

Once you start hearing the same things, you have facilitated enough interviews. If more statistically significant data is what your team needs, your interview findings should be sufficient to design a survey addressing important nuance.

Transcription, Analysis, and Synthesis

Transcription is useless if it’s not clear and useable. Audio or video record everything and maintain effective documentation standards in order to be useable by teammates at any point in the future.

Affinity mapping sorts piles of ideas, surfaces patterns, and guides strategy.

Documentation Design

Great design documentation improves design decisions immeasurably. Great researchers, product- and business-teammates set up designers for success. Well-prepared user research, product strategy, and business documentation will make your design decisions almost feel prepared for you.

Meaningful insights that are communicated effectively align team efforts and eliminate wasteful work. Even if a team feels like they understand the experience they’re supposed to deliver, they never know for sure that we’re working in sync until they have the visible documentation in front of them.

Great reference documentation significantly reduces mental overhead during the design process. Documentation is needed to ensure designers are on course and avoid important items from falling through the cracks as time passes and complexities occupy their mental resources.

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