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4 Helpful Tips for PMs to Navigate the Research & Discovery Phase

When it comes to building better products, the UX research and discovery phase is all about clarifying our perspective and checking the assumptions we hold about user behavior. 

While specialist UX researchers are usually the ones responsible for the UX research process, there are times when the product manager may be tasked with conducting it. Be it time constraints or a lack of budget, the PM is, in such situations, the next person to take up the bastion of UX research.

The purpose of conducting UX research and discovery exercises is to gather reliable insights that can guide product teams’ decisions. Good insight is key to building useful and resilient product features, whereas weak and unfounded insights can result in a bad and inconsistent user experience.

Effective UX research in 4 simple steps

Set the (right) objectives

Set the (right) objectives

“What is it that our users really want?”

Well, if only there was a straightforward answer to this question! The whole purpose of conducting UX research is to understand user requirements and validate the problems that have been identified.

So, for example, let’s say that your customer support team has reported an increase in service ticket resolution time. The goal of UX research in this scenario would be to discover the reasons causing the delay in ticket resolution and address them. 

Objectives form the foundation of every task that’s assigned and every question that’s asked during the research exercise. These objectives should be focused on particular features or processes of your product.

A helpful technique to derive the right objectives is the questioning method of 5W1H. The questions covered in this method are What? Who? Where? When? Why? How?. Asking this systematic set of questions helps collect the necessary data points to assess the existing situation. This method helps identify the true nature of the problem and precisely describe the context. Here’s how to go about it.

Who are the target users?

This answer helps create a user profile and pave the way to conduct the right demographic research. It also provides rich information to help select the right subjects for your research.

What are the requirements? 

Gathering requirements is an essential part of setting the right research objectives. Ideally, requirements from the users as well as the business should be listed so that the outcomes will be clearly aligned. 

When should it be done?

It is important to set a definitive timeline for any research exercise. Answering this helps estimate how critical the issue is and set up a suitable research schedule and timeline.

Where would it be used?

Is it a mobile feature or product you are researching for? Or is it strictly for in-office use? The ‘where’ question reveals the environments that the product/feature would be functioning in, and drives your objectives.

Why would this be useful?

The ‘why’ is all about identifying underlying motivations for a feature or product and lets you test the idea against those motivations. It also reveals the reasons why you should not pursue a particular objective.

How do we do this?

Once you have the answers to the 5W, the ‘how’ question answers how your users will perform their tasks with new features or how they would use the new product. 

Talk to the relevant stakeholders (users, managers, and product owners) as you go about setting your objectives for the UX research sprint. Make sure you seek out the available analytics data to pinpoint areas of concern, such as pages reporting an unusually high glitch rate or higher-than-average time on page.

Pick your UX research method wisely

The plethora of UX research methods makes it difficult to pick the right one, especially considering the objectives you have in mind, the availability of test subjects, budgets, time frames, and more. Do you go for qualitative or quantitative methods or both? In-person or remote UX research? Here’s how you make the right choice.

Quantitative data is often useful for exploring an issue. It helps you understand the thought processes of the user. Qualitative data will generally provide a more detailed answer to a problem; what’s the cause of the problem? How many people have the problem as a percentage of users?

The NN Group recommends picking each method considering a 3-dimensional framework with the following axes – attitudinal vs behavioral; qualitative vs quantitative; and context of use.

attitudinal vs behavioral; qualitative vs quantitative; and context of use

The attitudinal vs behavioral dimension helps to understand the differences between what people say and what they actually end up doing. Attitudinal research helps define the user’s beliefs and mental models, and reveals how they would behave in certain contexts.

Behavioral research methods, by contrast, actually observe the user in action.

In the other dimension, qualitative research methods reveal why the user behaves in a certain way, whereas quantitative methods provide voluminous data in the form of concrete numbers and statistics to work with.

It is vital that the research method is chosen appropriately, depending upon the nature and scale of the project to ensure that the results turn out to be very effective.

Synthesize and draw conclusions

The goal of the synthesis process is to analyze the factual results of the UX research exercise. Synthesis brings together all the findings and extracts insights and conclusions from the gathered data. Additionally, it also includes a list of actionable items that set the right course to move forward in the UX design process.

For instance, if you have conducted a remote, multiple choice survey or eye tracking (both quantitative research methods), you’re likely to have ended up with voluminous data. Now, this data would probably be tabulated in a spreadsheet or will have to be done so manually.

If we consider the problem we mentioned at the top regarding the customer support team having reported an increase in service ticket resolution time, the eye tracking test would reveal areas where the users spend the most/least time while answering customer queries. Synthesis of this test would reveal the problem areas with the service portal that’s used by customer support to resolve tickets. It would lead to insights about what needs to be refined and what features should be redesigned or eliminated.

Qualitative methods such as user interviews or focus groups provide complex yet rich and in-depth data that is non-numerical and subjective in nature. 

For instance, if your quantitative research shows that 48% of users have shown an increase in ticket resolution times over a period of 3 months, qualitative data can help uncover why this happened and give clues about how to remedy this problem. Speaking to users as part of qualitative research will help you collect quotes, anecdotes, observations, or narrative descriptions which can be used to assess and pinpoint the exact problems.

The synthesis process involves evaluating the themes that emerged out of every research exercise and uncovering the insights behind them. Then, articulate that meaning into insight statements. 

A good way to do this is by asking “how might we” questions. For the sake of our examples, these questions can be as follows:

  • How might we give users easy access to all the information they need to resolve tickets in a shorter time span?
  • How might we showcase that information in a way that’s quick to find and easy to understand?

It goes without saying that the most valuable insights come from a genuine desire to understand your users and provide value to their experience. A compilation of the right insight statements can then be presented to stakeholders in the form of research conclusions. 

Present it to stakeholders

No, your work does not end with UX research. 

When presenting user research findings, find ways to engage your audience. Create a custom presentation by covering findings that are most relevant, how those findings might impact the business and what can be done in terms of problem resolution. Make sure to only include information they will care about the most in a medium that’s easy for them to comprehend.

As far as possible, try including alternative formats like videos, audio clips, visualizations, or high-fidelity prototypes to bring an element of realism to your research findings. Interactive formats such as these ensure attention and engagement. 

A well-rounded UX research findings report comprises the following sections –

Methodologies used

Begin with the research methods used and the reasoning behind them. Keep it concise and refrain from excessive details.

Example: “We used eye tracking to detect how users perceive and understand the content and UI design elements.”

Key observations

This section is the highlight of your report. Present your findings clearly and concisely, supported by evidence (here is a sample gaze plot map). Always keep it contextual so that there is absolute clarity among the audience.  

Example: “Most users follow an F-shaped pattern, starting from top/left. Next, they move to the top/right of the page, skimming through the content and missing out on the ‘Help’ tab at the bottom right.

Business value and actionable recommendations

This section is all about convincing the stakeholders about the impact of the UX research exercise. Therefore, this is where the findings should be tied with the business goals such as productivity, profit, customer satisfaction, or other development goals. The final part report includes actionable recommendations based on possible solutions or answers to your research questions. 

Example: “Shift the ‘Help’ button to the top left of the page to ensure easy access. This can help customer support agents quickly access the service information and reduce delays in ticket resolution by 25%.

To conclude, remember that user research can be done at any point in the design cycle and is beneficial to the product at any stage. Teresa Torres, the author of Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products that Create Customer Value and Business Value writes, “Rather than thinking about discovery as something that we do at the beginning of a project, you will learn to infuse discovery continuously throughout your development process.”