Choosing the right approach

Choosing the right approach

When I first started as a UX researcher some years ago, the hardest part of any project was the beginning. You’ve been asked a research question; how do you go from there? I had not much experience to build on, and the step-by-step plans I found online were very focused on tools and techniques. I now know it’s not just about choosing a method; doing research is more than that. Every project is different and of course, every question is different.

This year two new researchers started at my organisation (the Executive Agency of Education) and we talked a lot about this issue during every project we started. Suddenly I noticed… I do have a step-by-step plan that I follow intuitively.

I’ve listed these steps in the form of questions I asked myself at the start of every project. Let’s have a look!

What do I want to know?

Everything starts with the research question. What do I want to know? Who else wants to know this in my organisation, or in my team? Why? Who’s the user and who else is involved? What do I already know? What is the context of this question or problem? Is the real research question actually another question?

Every project starts with a deep dive into the subject matter.

I like to do this with a colleague since you get much more precise answers when you discuss things out loud. In my experience, it’s also faster this way, but your mileage may vary. Ask a fellow researcher or designer to assist you, or ask someone else from your team or organisation, like one of the stakeholders involved.

Sometimes I involve a user through a spontaneous visit to get even more insight into the topic and questions at hand. For example, where I work the users are mostly students, so I go to a university cafeteria and ask students what they think of the subject and what the research question should be.

Where are we in the process?

A lot is dictated by the process that you’re in as a team. In which design phase is product development and what type of research activity fits that phase? If you are at the beginning of a new idea, then you have to map the context of the user. Halfway through you can test and validate ideas with prototypes, and at the end it is more convenient to fine-tune a design with an A/B test.

The level of depth in your research can be determined by the phase you are in. Do you want to hear opinions and feedback? Or do you want to see behaviour, for example in a heat map or see more in a usability test? Or do you also want to know how users feel and what their future expectations are? These lead to different methods best shown in the familiar ‘iceberg model’ described in The Convivial Toolbox by Elizabeth Sanders.

Do I have to think inside the box?

You’ll also have to face what is not possible. Every project has its limitations, e.g. lack of time or budget. The choice is yours: get frustrated, or see it as a chance to get creative. One of our researchers, Ruth, investigated the needs of people in the Caribbean for contact with our organisation. Of course our initial idea was an in-depth day-to-day study there on the ground for a good couple of weeks, haha, but of course that wasn’t possible. She settled on a remote diary study and regular skype contact. It worked great!

At the same time, I’m always considering the best conditions for the user during the research. Our office is in Groningen, not very central in the Netherlands. For most of our users, it’s more convenient if I travel to see them instead of the other way around. Especially people who work in schools are very busy. An hour at their office, however, is always possible. And I immediately get the atmosphere at their school, so it’s a win-win.

The timing of the study plays a role too. When I want to investigate how students apply for student finance, it’s best to do that at the beginning of the school year when young people start their studies and really have to deal with it instead of at the end of the school year when they have exams on their mind.

How am I going to capture the stories?

As the researcher, you are the interpreter and you have to tell the story in your organisation and to the rest of your team. Of course, it’s always great when team members tag along to research activities, but you need to think bigger. How you can tell stories in a compelling way depends on how you capture them. If it’s just you being the messenger, colleagues must believe you at your word. But if you film it, photograph it, record it or even let users be involved in making the data, your story is much richer, more real and more convincing. Think about this right at the start of your project. There are no do-overs.

Iterate, then iterate some more

Why not test your research approach and make it better? If you have chosen a method or have devised it yourself, do a test run. With a user, or even with a colleague. How do you ask the questions? What is the assignment? How does the material come across? What could be different and better? Never stop learning and improving on your research skills.

At the end of the research project: do the results that you get back, answer the questions you had at the beginning? Or do you have new questions now? In that case, let’s start with your next research study and begin by asking the first question: what do you want to know?

Maike Klip

Design researcher at Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs (Dutch government) | Website

She works as lead User Researcher at DUO. With a team of five researchers, they conduct company-wide research and coach other development teams to incorporate the user into their workflow. Next to her job, she studies at Willem de Kooning Academy where she uses design research to find out which role empathy plays in the making of digital government.

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