User Research on a Budget
User Research on a Budget
We take a look at how and why organizations which develop software conduct user research, and the pros and cons fo the various methods.
Join the DZone community and get the full member experience.Join For Free
The Agile Zone is brought to you in partnership with Techtown Training. Learn how DevOps and SAFe® can be used either separately or in unison as a way to make your organization more efficient, more effective, and more successful in our SAFe® vs DevOps eBook.
21 business days with 4 resources. The project lead shared an estimation for the proposed API development. The project requirement was to migrate the features and functionalities of a legendary network monitoring application to a new web-based environment.
The project meeting started with analyzing the existing features one-by-one and discussing them in detail. When the discussion moved over a feature related to a “Network Monitoring Widget,” the product owner was very keen on enhancing the feature and believed that this was one of their key selling points when the product was launched. Even their promotional activities were targeted around this feature. So, he came up with concepts of enhancing the feature based on his ideas and had a detailed discussion with his marketing and sales team and technical managers. The project team came up with an estimation to meet the product owner’s expectations.
The stakeholders were discussing various aspects of this feature and few were not convinced in certain areas. While the discussion was going nowhere, the technical lead suggested that he had a team member who had already worked on this product and they can get her input to make a decision.
The team member was called and the context was elaborated. They explained that this discussion was about the “Network Monitoring Widget” feature and they had an idea to include more functionalities in it and asked her opinion on that.
The team member’s response took the whole group by surprise. The answer was totally unexpected.
The team member replied:
“In my experience with the application, I hardly used this feature. I almost forgot about the existence of this feature until you brought it up here. There are better shortcuts to get the same details. I have probably only used this feature a couple of times in the past 3 years.”
Most of the stakeholders thought that she was an amateur and didn’t have much exposure to the product. They decided to get an opinion on the same feature from 7 to 9 engineers who have been using this product for nearly 3 years. The results were the same, they, too, hardly used the “Network Monitoring Widget.” Later they decided to remove the feature since it was rarely used.
By conducting this simple survey, they were able to save 21 days of effort for 4 people, who would have to develop and enhance a feature that was seldom used by the end users. Obviously, the effort required to discuss with 7 to 9 engineers regarding the feature was far less than developing a feature which would just clutter the interface rather than being a value-add.
The same scenario could have been more productive and proactive if the project team had involved the users in the very first stage of the product development. Sometimes, we don’t have access to users who have used the product we’re about to redesign or will be using a product we design. In such cases, we use personas instead.
What Is a Persona?
A persona is a representation of the target user who will be using the product. The persona is an outcome of user research where various prospective users are interviewed/observed. The persona describes the interests and pain points of the user. If the project team had done user research and defined a persona, they would have easily avoided the feature. But the majority of the projects are executed under tight budgets and timelines.
User Research and Budget Constraints
User research is a process of understanding a user’s behavior, attitudes, and needs, using different feedback collection and observation methods. The superior benefit of user research is that it helps us to understand users better so that we can address their needs with informed design solutions.
Project teams prioritize their budgets for more critical tasks and they often understand the importance of user research when it is too late. User Research is a proven methodology that helps prevent rework and ensures a better experience for the users. The cost of user research is usually much less than any fixes involved because of lack of user research.
When it comes to user research, the best results are obtained by User Interviews and Contextual Enquiries.
User interviews are a popular research methodology, where the interviewer asks questions and records the responses from potential users of a product to discover their attitudes, beliefs, and experiences. Interviews are usually conducted by one interviewer speaking to one user face-to-face, over the phone or via video streaming. Because of the one-to-one nature, any individual concerns or miscommunications can be directly addressed. It also allows the interviewer to capture verbal and non-verbal cues like emotions and body language. Because interviews need a team of people to conduct them, personnel costs are usually rather high.
Contextual inquiry is a process of collecting detailed information about a user’s work practices by observing them in their actual work environments. The user will take the lead as much as possible while the researcher takes a back seat. This helps the researcher to understand the user’s everyday tasks and the objective is to understand how and why a task is performed or why it’s not.
The Cost-Effective User Research Methods
User research is not always expensive or only conducted via interviews and user observations. Interviews and contextual inquiries are effective UX research methodologies but this does not mean that there are no other alternatives.
There are data gathering techniques which can be an alternate approach to Interviews and Contextual Enquiries and effective at the same time. These techniques are less expensive and less time-consuming. They also cover a wide range of users in a short span of time. I have listed few of these methods below.
An alternative approach to interviews. A facilitator will be involved to lead the discussion and brainstorming sessions. An observer can also participate to document key inputs from the users. This method helps save time as the interviews are conducted as a group.
While focus groups are led by facilitators to gather input from a group of users, facilitated workshops involve the technical team working with this group. This helps to get rapid feedback on critical issues as key stakeholders are interacting with the users directly. There is also a chance that the discussion might lead to justifying the original solution, but, with the presence of a good moderator, this can be avoided.
Surveys help to cover a larger population than other research methods. This ensures that the results are more accurate by targeting a specific user group, which helps make design decisions. There are many modes of surveys including online surveys, Paper Surveys, Telephone Surveys, and social media surveys. Data collection and analysis can be automated to reduce time and cost.
Help Desks and Service Lines
Monitoring customer support phone calls, e-mails, chat conversations, and in-person requests helps to identify the pain points of the users. This will provide valuable data on where the user is stuck or facing repeated issues. This data will help to identify the areas to focus on and provide solutions specific to these areas. This also helps to understand the user’s vocabulary.
Web Analysis Logs
Web analysis logs provide rich quantitative data on identifying what actions users take when they come to a page, and how many users take those actions. This data helps us evaluate the success or failure of the design and identify the areas in which to take action. This data also serves as an input for other direct and indirect data gathering methods like interviews and surveys.
The data gathered via user research provides valuable information about the potential users, their needs, behavior, and pain points. While research methodologies like interviews and contextual inquiries provide rich data on users, there are alternative methodologies which are cost-effective and quicker. The persona creation process is informed by research and an intimate knowledge of an established user base. Personas will help create a better design for the user base which is not only useful during the design process but to validate that the designs meet the user’s needs.
Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.