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What is user research?

User research is the practice of really understanding your user. Too often, we build solutions and systems with ourselves in mind. Our users often have different experiences, technical skills and desires. This means we build systems which don’t match what they need.

By conducting user research, it means we can understand these users. It means that every feature we build into our product or every process we develop can actually match what they want.

Sometimes it can be hard to see how user research fits into the spheres of product management and business analysis. User research is its own profession and there are many people out there who are dedicated user researchers. However, this can be rare in some organisations or sectors. Similarly, it is important for business analysts and product owners to conduct user research themselves.

User research tends to be different to traditional business analysis techniques. For example, within workshops the researchers takes a more objective eye towards the user. The user researcher is an advocate of the user and not the business, a business analyst often has to take a stance between the two. A user researcher also tends to work closely with user experience professionals to create the user interface.

But as with all three professions, there are many shades of user research and how it could be conducted.

Group of people at a meeting room table staring at a screen which has a program opened on it, conducting user research.

What does a user researcher do?

A dedicated user researcher or business analyst can use a range of activities to find the insights they need. I also recommend you review the government GDS competency definition of a user researcher.

A typical list of user research activities include:

  • Be an advocate for your user. The most important thing you can do is advocate your user. This means speaking for your user at all times. By learning through research, you can share insights, real life experience and needs. Being an advocate can be achieved in a variety of ways, including: creating outputs like personas or empathy maps, full formal debriefs or sharing insights as you go.
  • Conduct user research in a variety of ways. Techniques vary but can include interviewing, field research, formal research in UX labs, card sorts, eye tracking, surveys or focus groups. All techniques must be conducted in a way that is not biased, even if the insights found are not what you want to hear!
  • Conduct desk based research. Desk based research is a key technique which can be used alongside other techniques. This can include looking at competitors, understanding analogous fields or researching usability best practice.
  • Write user needs. Based on all the research, user needs are similar to requirements and express exactly what the user wants. By having a core set of user needs, these can be referenced to in the requirements to make sure each of them has evidence behind it.
  • Contribute to wireframes and prototypes. Based on the user research, wireframes and prototypes can be created. This can then lead to further iterative rounds of user research to validate and improve on the user experience.

Why does an organisation need user research?

Sometimes it can feel as though user research is an expensive activity which isn’t essential in the project. However, by taking this stance, an organisation clearly misses out on insights.

When we learn more about our user, we can tailor features in our product. The more a product matches the user needs, the more they will enjoy it.

This can be the key activity which separates a product or project from success or failure. If users do not like your product they won’t use it. If you’re building an internal system and your users don’t like it, then they might find workarounds or other solutions instead.

Understanding user needs is something which has been noticed across the major players in most industries. Some companies such as Apple thrive on creating an excellent user experience. Research is at the forefront of the public sector. It is one of the only activities which has a stated time allocation. It contributes to GDS stage assessments and a project cannot go live without it.

An organisation can start to get these benefits by using a pilot. This will give the opportunity to see user needs and their value but without the investment of a full user research team. By incorporating these techniques into business analysis, it means that business analysts can create more value.

How do I train to conduct user research?

As mentioned in our other posts, there isn’t a set training path to becoming a user researcher. It is common for them to come from a range of backgrounds, whether that is business analysis, IT or user experience.

There are a variety of user experience degrees and certificates out there to be completed. There are less which are specific to research. This is slowly changing and some examples include:

What next?

Finally, user research is closely linked to product ownership and business analysis. Learn more in our ‘what is product ownership?‘ and ‘what is business analysis?‘ articles to understand more about the synergies and cross overs.

Does this explanation of user research match your experience? Share your thoughts below.

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  1. 10 articles to help build your user research skills - Business Analysis Collective