We know what user research is and why it has value. The next step is learning how to conduct user research in cost-effective way that still delivers maximum impact. A sprint is a user research methodology that allows you to gain insights on a target audience in just one week. The user research process works in any industry and for companies of any size, and it’s repeatable — if you need more insight or help understanding another group, the same process can be used each time.
A sprint is a great way to incorporate user experience research techniques into your project before you start to build, so that the outcomes fuel decisions that help a product best meet customer needs. It can also be inserted at into any stage in agile design and development as a user research process at any point when you need to learn more about your customer’s needs before proceeding. Whenever you choose to do it, a user research sprint is meant to save you from having to make changes later in the development process, when it’s too expensive or too late.
How to conduct user research in five days
A user research sprint will teach you how to:
- Agree to a goal
- Practice active listening
- Make sense of spreadsheets and stickies
- Trust your gut
|Day 1||Days 2 & 3||Day 4||Day 5|
Create interview or testing criteria
Set up testing environment
|Conduct interviews and / or testing
Researcher: Person who is planning, performing and analyzing the research
Observer: Person who is co-planning, taking notes and analyzing the research
Coordinator: Person who is recruiting and scheduling the participating users
Having two to three people participating in the user experience research methodology brings in more perspectives and gives you people to cross-check observations with, both of which will generate better insights. It also allows you to get the job done faster — one person can run this process, but it will take an extra week. Going through a research sprint is like going on a treasure hunt: you know the treasure is there somewhere, but you don’t know where to find it yet. It’s equal amounts exhilarating and frustrating. You want user experience researchers who are investigators and hunters, puzzle breakers and dot connectors. It’s intuition blended with a methodology that will produce needed results. Trusting the process plus having the right folks will provide an infinite amount of insights fueling the next steps.
Day 1: Define the problem and design your user research
Kick off the research sprint with one to three vital stakeholders and learn what they envision the outcome of the UX research process to be. The stakeholders should include people who can provide clarity on business goals, what they are trying to reach and what they are looking to gain out of the user research method. Learning about the expectations will help you select the types of user research to use during the week and write the user research questions. The goals typically fall someplace on the spectrum from learning about base behaviors around perceived pain points of someone’s life to learning about shortcomings of existing solutions. On this day you focus on finding out what you need to learn.
Some questions user experience research design can answer:
- Why there are drop-offs on specific features
- What a day in the life of a particular target audience looks like under a specific context
- What pain points are experienced by a target audience in the context of a certain task
- How well an existing solution meets a target audience’s need
- What works well and what shortcomings competitor products have
- How well the target audience perceives the brand
To understand their goals, here are two example questions to jump-start the conversation with stakeholders:
- What outcomes do you expect from the research?
- What are you hoping to learn from the research?
“But what if I don’t know what I’m looking for?” Make sure you pick a single goal — without a defined north star, the research will be unfocused and your results muddy and non-actionable.
Choose your user experience techniques
Now that you are clear on what outcomes the research should provide, it’s time to select between types of user experience research. Knowing when to use which user experience research methods depends knowing your goals. Some examples of qualitative research techniques are listed below. They can be used on their own or in combination, depending on the goals of the sprint. Once your user experience techniques are selected, you can create a guide for user research interviews or testing.
“Pay attention to what users do, not what they say.” — Jakob Nielsen
User research methods
- Interviews: Questions asked directly to end users. For interviews to go well and provide deep insights, you need high skill in active listening and questioning. The interviewer should be able to start off with generic questions and also pivot, ask appropriate follow-up questions and reel the conversation back on track. It’s a simple technique that can be hard to do right and requires a bit of practice. The outputs of interview sessions are insights that will shape the how and what of a new product, feature or business model.
- Usability testing: Testing with existing prototypes or live software versions to uncover how effective they are against user needs. Conducted by the person fulfilling the role of the researcher.
- Observations: Observing users in the context of the problem space. Asking questions to gain understanding.
Write out user research interview questions
Different types of user research questions to ask will get you different answers. Any given goal will contain a set of questions to gain meaningful insights.
When thinking about questions, be creative and keep the 5-Why rule in mind. It will typically take you five different ways and follow up questions to understand the real problem.
It’s not essential to have every single question written out and to ask it in that specific order. It’s often enough to have a rough UX interview script to serve as a framework, then to allow the conversation to build up and follow its natural course. Asking follow-up questions as the conversation progresses with the goal of hunting for the why can be just as valuable as asking your original user experience research questions.
You will spend about 30-60 minutes with each participant, and it’s essential to plan the UX research questions to fit the allocated time.
Some rules of thumb when writing an interview guide:
- Greet the user and provide context as an intro.
- Have some small talk to connect with participant and to get them comfortable.
- Remind the participant that the sessions will be recorded and to sign a consent form.
- Review the UX research techniques and structure you’ll be using for the interview.
- Thank the participant for their participation.
- Remind them of the reward for participation.
Set up your UX research environment
The software and tools you use will depend on the UX research methods you’ve chosen. A fantastic remote conferencing tool is lookback.io, with its robust capabilities allowing for analysis, playback, note taking and exports. A favorite fallback tool is GoToMeeting or any other conferencing tool that allows for video, screen-sharing, and recording.
During remote testing, make sure you have a distraction-free zone.
- For remote testing: share the login information with participants and give exact directions on what they will expect and any backup logins.
- Provide them advance direction around downloading necessary software
- Have a phone or laptop with microphone available
- For in-person sessions: have a dedicated room prepared for testing and for observing.
- For on-site observations: have a recording device that will work within the physical environment.
It’s helpful to have an informal practice run, with colleagues for example, to uncover any hiccups and make adjustments to the interview guide or set-up before the scheduled user sessions.
Days 2 and 3: Conduct user research
Stay away from making judgments or forming solutions. The goal is to focus on connecting with the user, asking questions and listening.
How to do user research
The assigned observer will capture users’ behaviors, language, body language, emotions, facial expressions and direct answers through writing and recording. Instead of taking down language as its spoken, use your time during the interview to jot down important observations such as body language, expressed language, emotional reactions and other behaviors. You can always refer to the tape later for exact phrasing. It’s about capturing participants' behavior and what it means, rather than only what they verbally express.
Day 4: Analyze your user experience research
By now you will have notes from 10 to 15 people. You will look at stickies, videos, spreadsheets, note paper or any other output capturing the observations, and at first any starting point will likely feel overwhelming. If you are not a professional researcher, this step may feel like drowning. It takes that hunter and pattern-connector mindset to make sense of the mess. A pro is highly recommended; however, if a researcher is not participating in this part make sure that you have people who enjoy and get energy from this kind of work. Their desire to make sense out of chaos will make pattern recognition quick.
- Look for anything that stands out — any behaviors, spoken language, show of emotions (good and bad). Then organize them into an affinity map.
- Code the observations onto a spreadsheet or write them out on sticky notes. Group like notes with like, and allow the patterns to emerge naturally.
- Keep assessing the pattern to generate deeper meaning. This part is highly intuitive.
When clear patterns arise and you are comfortable with the groupings, you are ready for the next phase in the user experience methodology, forming insights. At the end of the day you should have a sense of completion and comfort that the gathered data is organized.
Day 5: Form insights to improve user experience design
This point in the process is all about UX research methods and techniques that turn all the data collected into actionable results other people can use going forward in the design and development cycle. To start, write out any insights as questions or problem statements that can be used to stimulate brainstorming and problem solving with the next group.
“Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.” — Brian Reed
The output of a user research sprint varies. A useful choice is an experience map, because it includes a high-level user journey along with details on all relevant data points surrounding each phase. It encompasses all information needed to form personas, UX stories, problem statements, etc. Another possible output is a persona that communicates the needs, desires, pain points and character of the target group. You may create primary, secondary and tertiary personas. Other forms of outputs will evolve and emerge from repeated use.
Conducting user research is the best way to save you time and money
Completing research in one week is an intense and highly immersive process, but the results will inspire the creation of better products the first time around, saving you from rework and increasing the odds that you will find market-product fit.