How do you tackle user research and testing?

From approaching it like a science to shunning it altogether, designers have different approaches to user research. We asked seven pros what they thought.

Ida Aalen from Netlife Research will be at Generate London in September to explain why you should never show a design you haven't tested, and to share affordable, practical tips for testing your designs, with examples from actual projects she has worked on. Book now! 

It's not easy to create an engaging and compelling online user experience, and despite what many people will tell you, the research and testing stage of UX design isn't an exact science. Some approaches work for some companies, and others will swear blind that the exact opposite approach is the only one to go for. 

So how should you deal with user research and testing? We asked seven web professionals how they do it; read what they have to say, see what resonates with you and give it a try. And don't let anyone tell you you're doing it wrong! 

01. Start with the goals

"We always start with the goals of the project and of our client's business in general," says Mule Design Studio's Erika Hall. "This allows us to identify the most relevant research questions and focus our efforts. Then we work as collaboratively as possible so everyone working on the project has a hand in generating the insights. It's easy to focus on specific methods and tools and forget why you're doing the research in the first place. Always referring to the higher goals keeps the mind sharp, so you don't just fall into habits."  

02. Tell a story

Monotype's research director Emma Boulton observes that some people think of research as a scientific discipline, and see it as testing a hypothesis, uncovering the scientific truth or finding evidence. "It can be all of those things," she tells us, "but I believe research is simply about seeking information and piecing it together in a coherent narrative. It's about telling a story so that it provides insights and a clear path to take."

03. Choose the right approach

"The terms 'user research' and 'user testing' are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings and objectives," notes Chui Chui Tan from cxpartners. "Both are about getting insights from people who are using, or are likely to use, a product. However, there's a slight distinction. Usability testing is about identifying issues users might experience with a product, either via the product itself or a prototype. 

"User research is about focusing on understanding users' behaviours, needs, expectations and pain points. You don't necessarily need material to test on. This means the approach you use and questions you ask should be different for each. Choose the right approach and questions so you can get the best from your users."

Never show a design you haven't tested, says Ida Aalen. Find out more at Generate London

04. Do less more often together to do more

Quietstars' co-founder Adrian Howard has his own mantra for testing: 'Do less more often together to do more'. He explains: "'Do less' because the point is not research for the sake of it, but to help us deliver the right products and services at the right time. 'More often' because ongoing research helps us discover and refine markets and customer needs. Ongoing testing helps us ensure our products meet those needs. 'Together' because the simplest way to make sure everybody understands the research is for everybody to be involved in doing the work and owning the results."

05. Just don't

On the other hand, suggests UX designer Irene Pereyra from Anton & Irene, don't bother. "We never do any user research," she reveals. "Testing your own work is a bit like grading your own homework and a lot of user research is conducted like a pseudo-science. I've been in one too many subjective testing environments that would surely make real scientists scream in horror. If our clients want user research we quote Dieter Rams, who when asked about doing consumer research during his time at Braun simply said, 'Never. We wanted to change the world.'"

06. Observe and iterate

"When you research users and usage, always remember: there is more truth in data than in conversation, and more understanding yet in observation," suggests UX designer and author, Robert Hoekman Jr. "Listen to what they say, then ignore it and watch the stats to see what they do. Then ignore both and watch them in person to find the truth. When drawing up a new design, try iterative usability testing. Leave time between sessions to revise, then show the new version to the next tester. Don't change everything. Use good judgment. Do this well and the problems you hear about in the morning will be gone by the afternoon."

07. Have a conversation

According to Steve Portigal, the way to approach user research is to go to where people are doing their thing and engage them in a direct but open-ended conversation about what they're doing now and what they'd like to be doing. "Most importantly," he says, "I listen for 'why'. If you seek to understand usage without uncovering meaning, you leave so much insight on the cutting-room floor. I use insights as seeds for the extended team to gather, and think divergently and how we might respond to what we've learned. Research always feeds action."

Pick up testing tips from Ida Aalen at Generate London on 21-23 September – it's three days of inspiring sessions and workshops that'll help you ramp up your web skills and take your business to the next level. Book now!

This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 269. Subscribe today!