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Learning User Experience Design Series: User Research and Validation
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Andy Leverenz

June 19, 2016

Last updated November 5, 2023

Learning User Experience Design Series: User Research and Validation

We left off on part three of the ”learn user experience design series” discussing the various methods best utilized when prototyping your ideas rapidly.

In the early stages of the user experience design process, you will want to iterate through all of the ideas you have and bring the strongest ones forward. The strongest ideas then turn into prototypes in which you can use to test your theories. In order to find your strongest ideas, you need to do some user research and validation first. We'll continue the series discussing both the user research and validation phases of the user experience design process.

User Research

To solve problems you first need to understand what problems are trying to solve. The best way to do this is to perform user research. Gaining insight about what your user's pain points are will help you uncover more ways in helping them resolve the issues they are facing as well as visualizing yourself in their shoes.

What if I have a small about of users?

If you don’t have users yet you will be forced to make some educated guesses. If you just kicked off a new product and need feedback, consider promotions or incentives for new users to register and tell you what they think of the product(s) you offer. Friends, family, and colleagues are also good candidates for some unbiased feedback. Try to keep the users you gain feedback from as diverse as possible.

User research can be as small as a questionnaire or as large as a focus group in which users are invited to discuss in a group setting their experience with your product or service.

User research methods

There are a number of methods you can use to gain more insight into the experience of your products and applications. In your own processes be sure to utilize the methods that appeal most to you. Many of the methods involve validating (testing) your ideas with users. When validating remember to test early and often!

Focus Groups

Focus groups are quick ways to develop ideas one-on-one interviews may overlook. Sometimes group settings bring forth ideas that are often built upon another person’s discovery.

Focus groups are relatively cheap and quick to perform. You don’t even necessarily need to be in the same location to run them.

Running focus groups

  • Questions asked in a focus group should be primarily open-ended and neutral. You want those participating to share their own feedback.

  • Sometimes picking at issues people have strong opinions about is a good ice-breaker to kick a good session off.

  • Debates and disagreements will likely occur so a moderator during the focus group is crucial. This keeps things on track and beneficial for the people running the focus group.

  • Be sure each member of the focus group knows their time and opinions are valuable. This can be done with spoken words as well as body language.

  • If someone tries to dominate the session be sure to invite each person to speak their opinions as well. The more feedback from each person the better you can measure later.

Further reading
Focus groups - how to run them
Do’s and Don’ts for Focus Groups

Surveys / Questionnaires

If you need feedback from a larger audience that is cheap, effective, and quick then surveys or questionnaires are great ways to get that data you are after.

Each survey needs to be tailored to the user in mind. Use empathy when developing questions to ask your users as they won’t relate otherwise. Surveys can be an effective method for identifying:

  • Who your users are
  • What your users want
  • Where they put the most focus
  • What matters most to them
  • Why they need your solution to solve their problem

Logical flow
The flow of a survey is important.

  • Start with the basics and work your way towards more challenging questions.
  • Be sure the questions that are asked pertain to the target audience
  • Make it really easy to understand. Don’t make your users wary of a question as they’ll answer with little confidence.
  • Rating systems are better than “yes” or “no” type of questions. Giving your users more options allows them to answer with more confidence.

Getting users to participate
Most users want a reason to give you feedback, whereas others are often willing to help if you ask. Some users are also unhappy and will voice their concerns voluntarily. Either way, it is a good practice to offer incentives for those who opt to participate in user research.

To get users to participate in a survey or questionnaire you could offer free resources, discounts, or early access to new features.

Further reading

Usability Tests

Usability tests involve taking the prototypes we discussed in part two of this series and putting them in front of users for validation purposes.

For this method, an interactive prototype is wise as your users will need to get hands-on with something to provide valuable feedback. You can just as easily do usability tests with tangible prototypes as well or mix and match to see if the results that come back a similar or different.

Usability tests are great for discovering weak points in any user experience. Witnessing these tests is a great way to see how real users use your products giving you inside information in real-time.

An example of a usability test could be if you designed a series of wireframes using an application like Balsamiq or even Adobe Illustrator and saved each screen as an image. From there you could transfer the images to a prototyping application like Invision or Marvel.

Inside a prototyping application, you can create clickable hot spots so that the user you do the usability test with can use the prototype like a real application. This bypasses the need to code anything and waste valuable time and resources.

You can then finally meet with the user(s) doing the usability test and watch them as they test your interactive prototype. As they do take note of their reactions, if they struggle knowing what to do next, and if the experience feels like they are accomplishing something. Note their body language during the test as it will tell you a lot about how the user reacts to the experience.

Prototyping overload
There are so many solutions on the market for usability testing and prototyping that many designers get overwhelmed with what tool to use at any given step of the way. Unfortunately, conducting a usability test requires a lot of prep work. Often times this test is rushed and the results suffer.

My suggestion with all the tools and apps out there is to try as many as possible but settle on one or two you can stand and stick with them. Don’t let the market sway your decision just because everyone else is using it. A good article to check out that hits home on this subject is called The Ideal Design Workflow by Keaton Herzer.

A/B Tests

A/B tests are great ways to test an existing solution to see if it is indeed performing well or not. The general definition of an A/B test is to bring forth two or more solutions to potentially solve the same problem and present them live for a period of time. You will then measure the results of the time each design is live and the one with the best outcome wins. I would alternatively define A/B tests as testing in the wild.

You will often find A/B tests being performed in relation to call to actions inside a user experience, but it can really apply to anything. The key is to measure how many conversions take place based on a design being presented to the user. If one outperforms the other then that design would make sense to be the solution set in place.

Further reading
The Ultimate Guide To A/B Testing
The A/B Test: Inside the Technology That’s Changing the Rules of Business

Card sorting

Card sorting is a visual exploration of the way content is categorized inside an application. Users can help author the way an application is presented based on the content or tools they would like to see displayed.

This method is useful for giving users the experience they want from the start rather than guessing what you think they will want to see.

There are two main methods used for card sorting:

  • Open card sorting: users are given cards of the content without any pre-established categorization in place. It will be up to the user to decide how the content is grouped. This is most beneficial for a new product or application.

  • Closed card sorting: users are given cards of content with pre-established taxonomies(categories) and are requested to place cards into the groups that best fit. This is most useful for a preexisting product or application.

Further Reading

Why validation is crucial

Rushing to build any user experience will only leave you guessing at what users will try to do in any given scenario. This is commonly seen when the design of a website or application is built by non-designers. Somewhere along the line time, budget or manpower became an issue and as a result, the user experience suffered.

In my past line of work, I had experienced as a single designer on a team full of developers. In an effort to keep up with the workload, many developers were forced to implement their own design strategies on the applications we were building as I was outnumbered.

The result of this left the application we were building with huge inconsistencies, massive amounts of bugs, and complaints from users about poor user experience. Sadly, much of the work was for nothing and we ended up having to go back and fix things one-by-one.

This process was very inefficient and overall just a terrible way to do things, not to mention me being way outnumbered.

Users don’t lie

Putting ideas in front of real users explains a lot about the experience they must follow to get from one point to the next. This process may even uncover new problems you overlooked or weren’t even aware of from the start.

Most users will be completely honest with their thoughts on the experience. If they hate it, they’ll say so. This is a good thing. This is validation. Upon learning what works and what doesn’t you are able to reevaluate your goals and shift your approach in such a way that makes more sense to your users because after all, it is them you are trying to appease. Not yourself!

Internal & External Validation

Using the user research methods I discussed before you will want to prove your theories. Doing so can happen internally (at your company) or externally (out in the wild with real users).

Performing internal validations gives you insight from people who know your product and platform. This is often useful for getting into the finer details of user experience and pointing out any inconsistencies, bugs, or general look and feel.

External validation helps pinpoint the pitfalls of the bigger picture experience. Most users won’t care about bugs or the software used to build the product. They are only concerned with solving their own problems in an easier way.

During external validation, you will likely uncover more obstacles in your application. This is good! The process will ensure the direction you are heading is indeed valid, which is the whole point of testing. After several rounds of testing and prototyping, you should finally arrive at a solution that appeases your users.

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