So, you’ve decided to do some research before you get started on your design? Great! But now what? What kind of research should you do? Here are a few types of research you might consider:
While in an earlier post we said “You are NOT your audience”, you do often know quite about them…or at least you assume a lot about them. Brainstorming is a great approach to make your assumptions explicit. By asking yourself questions such as What are they like? What do they know? What do they want to do? When and Where do they want to do it?, you can create a list of ideas that can then be tested by other research methods below. Brainstorming should never be the only research method (since it has no validation, but it does have the advantage of being quick–a few minutes to a few hours–and inexpensive, often free or close to free).
Haven’t heard of Gamestorming? Well, this is your chance. It’s a way to add fun (and rigor) to the brainstorming process, and good friends Dave Gray , Sunni Brown , and James Macanufo have written a book (and a website ) to help you out. There are a variety of games that can be used when researching your customers. Like brainstorming, gamestorming should never be the only research method (for the same reasons brainstorming shouldn’t be the only research method). We’ll probably take a look at other games in later posts, but here are a couple that are handy for researching customers:
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Shadowing is when you follow someone around, see what they do, and take notes. In some circles this is called stalking, but here it’s with their knowledge and permission. Seeing how people behave in the real world (not what they say they do, but what they actually do) often can lead to insights that the people themselves could never express. Often it’s just as important to notice what they didn’t do as what they did. Harder to uncover here is why they make the choices they make. Some researchers will have participants talk through the decisions out loud. Others say that talking out loud can bias the results. Either way, seeing people in the wild can create unique solutions that none of the other methods provide. While useful, shadowing can be expensive and is not very scalable if you need a large sample size. Occasionally, shadowing may miss edge cases (things that don’t happen very often) because the exception may not happen during the observation.
Nielsen made diary studies famous. Back in the day, they would give certain families (the Nielsen families) a diary to write down their TV watching habits. These journals then became the way TV stations would extrapolate how many people watched a show. In these days of Hulu , Netflix , and other streaming video, tracking can be done much more accurately with more detail that can be reported instantly. However, that doesn’t completely invalidate diaries as a method of research. If shadowing won’t work, diaries can provide a simple way to observe behavior without being present. With modern technology, diaries don’t have to be written. Online forms, journal apps, or front-facing cellphone video cameras all provide interesting alternatives to the hand written diary.
Field interviews are similar to shadowing in that the researcher meets the person out in the real world, where they are. However, rather than following and observing, the participant is asked questions about the subject. It provides some of the same benefits as shadowing (participants may be reminded of topics by their environment or may be able to show examples), but unless the right questions are asked some information may be left out. Field interviews are slightly more scalable (since they are typically shorter than shadowing), but still can be expensive and time consuming.
Street interviews are similar to field interviews in that they happen out in the real world. This technique is handy when the researcher needs access to a large set of random people from the general public, and is particularly helpful if the design will be used in the general public (i.e. on the street). However, many people won’t stop for interviews and asking for interviews from random people can be difficult at times. In addition, people are often hurried, so the responses may be great for quick reactions, but not work as well for research that requires in depth thought.
Subject Matter Expert Interviews
Rather than asking the broader audience, sometimes trying to find the expert(s) can reduce the time and expense of interviews. Experts can often point out the most important things and use their experience to answer for the broader audience. However, SMEs are notorious for forgetting what it was like to learn and not know some of the information, so they may assume their audience knows things and project a level of knowledge/expertise on to the audience that doesn’t exist. SMEs can also be helpful in early reviews to make sure major mistakes or faux pas are avoided. Alternately, instead of leaving some things out, some SMEs have the opposite problem assume everything is important. By combining this method with others, both of these limitations can be reduced.
Phone interviews are a time-tested and well-used alternative to the above interview methods. Their main advantage is that they are easier to conduct since there’s no travel involved and more people can be reached, making scaling easier than the other interview methods. However, because the questions occur out of context, participants may miss contextual clues. As compared to observational methods, the answers can be based more on what people think they would do rather than what they would actually do, and people are notoriously bad at predicting their own behavior.
Sometimes being in a group can help inspire thoughts or ideas which create additional feedback. Group members can build on each others ideas, add color to stories, and immediately validate (or invalidate) experiences. However, without expert facilitation, this approach can also lead to group think where everybody think the same thing even though not everybody really shares that opinion or experience. A facilitator can also help make sure that no one person dominates the conversation and that even the quietest, shyest voices are heard. Several of the gamestorming techniques referenced above are very handy tools for focus groups.
Surveys are the modern classic research method. Plenty of great, inexpensive tools (like Survey Monkey) are easy to setup, administer and report, and are very inexpensive (or even free). The types of questions that can be asked are extensive, and many even offer branching capabilities. Branching allows the research to ask only the questions that apply. For example, if the first question asks if the participant uses makeup and they answer “no”, there is no need for the survey to ask how often and what types of makeup they might use. Surveys can reach very large audiences very quickly, and results can be compared and tabulated in real time. Compared to other research methods, voluntary surveys tend to have lower response rates.
The key with research is to select the methods that will provide the best results for your design, and are achievable with your time and budget. No one research method should be used independently. Using multiple methods can help reduce the impact of any limitations of individual methods and provide a more well-rounded picture of the audience. There are whole graduate level courses in how to do research, and this isn’t meant as an exhaustive list or the single source for research information. So, be sure to go out and do your own research into best practices for whichever ones work best for you.