How to Turn User Research into Smart Design Decisions

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How to Turn User Research into Smart Design Decisions

A great product experience starts with a good understanding of users. In most cases, this understanding comes from user research. Without any doubt, user research is a critical component of the design process; it enables product teams to design products that people really want. It’s vital to not only conduct proper user research but also to provide research findings in a meaningful way. User research won’t generate any profit unless a team understands its research findings, accepts them, and acts upon them. Unfortunately, many researchers face problems getting their research results integrated into a product’s design.

In this article, I’ll focus on how to deliver research findings to product teams and stakeholders. Consider this a short guide on how to bridge the gap between user research and design.

To turn research findings into product changes, you follow a 4-step process:

  • Define expected outcomes
  • Prepare your research findings (create a report)
  • Effectively communicate results
  • Plan next steps

1. Define expected outcomes

By clearly defining expected outcomes you create a solid foundation for your research. Once you’ve established your outcomes, they will act as the North Star that guides you in this process.

Know your goals

Without clearly stated goals, your research activity likely won’t bring any value to the business. That’s why, even before starting user research, you need to work with product teams and stakeholders to clarify the key goals of your research. During the planning phase, work collaboratively with product managers and stakeholders to find out what they want to learn. Try to find answers to following questions:

  • What do they hope to get out of this research?
  • What existing problems do they want to solve?

Once you have answers to the questions, you can craft your research strategically. This way it will have a clear, targeted impact.

Involving stakeholders during the planning phase not only helps you better define goals, but it also makes them feel more invested in the research. This increases the chances of buy-in from stakeholders when you show them the results.

Write a good brief

Once you know what stakeholders want to achieve from user research, you will need to write a research brief and get them to agree to it. A solid brief sets expectations at the outset, and is important because:

  • It defines the key questions your research needs to answer.
  • It states which methods you plan to use when conducting research.
  • It defines the timeline for completing the work: the dates on which you plan to deliver the research results, as well as the format in which you’ll deliver them (whether it will be a written report, a presentation, or a workshop).

Engage the whole team in the research process

Ideally, everyone who has input into design decisions should participate in user research.

When the whole product team gets immersed in the research process, this increases the chances that results will be valuable for them.

Here are a few practical recommendations that you can follow to engage the team in the process:

  • As soon as you get your first reliable results, it’s a good idea to run a brainstorming session with a product team. During the session you can present your findings, discuss them, and get agreement (or counter-arguments) on their implications.
  • Encourage project team members and stakeholders to participate as observers in user research and usability testing sessions. There’s a better chance the team will accept the findings when they’ve experienced the research firsthand.

2. Prepare your research findings (create a report)

Once you’ve collected rich data from your research sessions, you’ll need to identify the valuable insights that address your primary goals.

Provide research as a deliverable

While it might be tempting to skip over preparing a formal deliverable, it’s better to avoid that temptation. Not producing any documentation of research findings is the wrong approach; here’s why:

  • Firstly, there won’t be any record of research findings for later use; the knowledge acquired just stays with the researcher. It’s wrong to rely on memory because human memory is fallible (even the perfect researcher can easily forget important details).
  • Secondly, the approach won’t work in the long-term. When a researcher moves on to another project or leaves the company, the only source of information is lost.

Having a good research report is beneficial for both researcher and the team/stakeholders. Reports can be used as project documentation. Good reports contain enough detail and context that anyone who isn’t familiar with the project can read the research findings and understand them.

Keep raw research data to yourself

Raw research data is basically all the data you gather, whether it’s reports from user interviews, results of usability testing, and so on. While all this information is extremely helpful in getting insights and preparing a solution to a problem, the final report (the one you’ll show to the team/stakeholders) shouldn’t be a compilation of raw research data. The amount of information can be overwhelming, and you can’t expect people to read through all of your notes from sessions and understand them. Remember, your goal should be in identifying and presenting key insights rather than just reporting facts. That’s why you need to synthesize what you’ve learned and to communicate the filtered data to product team.

You need to turn raw data into valuable insights.

Tip: When creating a report don’t be afraid to throw some collected data into the garbage. Of course, it hurts to trash something you’ve spent time on and think is great, but this is a necessary step to gain clarity. Clarity should be the top priority for you.  

Visualize your findings

It’s difficult to convey research findings through text alone. Whenever you can, try to supplement the text in your report with screenshots, illustrations, charts, and any other visuals that will help you more clearly show your findings. In addition to clarifying points, visualizations make a report appear more interesting for readers. It’s much easier to read a report with relevant visuals than it is to read a report that consists entirely of walls of text.

Use annotated visualizations as a supplement to text. Image source: Gmail.

Remember to step back to see the bigger picture

When writing a research report, it’s relatively easy to become overwhelmed. When you feel overwhelmed, you need to pause and take a step back. Doing that will help you focus on the core goals of your research project, and you’ll be able to see the bigger picture. And when you look at the bigger picture, it enables you to make more informed decisions.

3. Effectively communicate your findings

Make sure your insights resonate with people

It’s crucial to ensure people understand and accept your findings. Consider doing a test run for your presentation to make sure your findings make sense to people. Give people some initial context, show them the insights, and get their reactions. This will help you understand whether the insights resonate (i.e., do people get them? Do they value them?).

Deliver your findings in person

While written reports may contain enough information, they have two serious limitations:

  • You can’t count on everyone reading them.
  • People can easily misinterpret information in written reports. Since written reports don’t provide the opportunity to ask the researcher questions to gain clarity, you can’t guarantee that everyone will be on the same page after reading the report.

That’s why instead of writing up a report and sending it around you should always try to present your results in person. This way, people involved in the project are more likely to absorb your findings.

Deliver your findings in a presentation

It would be wrong to stand in front of people and simply read your report; you need to present something. Be ready to prepare slides and a speech. A presentation can also act as a deliverable; you can share your presentation with your audience after the talk.

Tailor your findings to the audience

You should tailor your findings to the needs and interests of your audience. Those interests may vary significantly: while top management typically wants to hear just a brief overview with key findings, people responsible for the implementation of your recommendations (designers and developers) will definitely want to hear all the technical details. That’s why creating several versions of your presentation with different levels of detail may be a smart decision.

Explain your research methods

The people viewing your work will likely want to know which techniques you used during your research and why. Have a part in your presentation where you explain your research methods. Even if you described your research methods before, it’s worth going over them again during the presentation. Your audience may include people who forgot this information or others who just recently joined the team and didn’t have a chance to hear it. There’s no need to cover everything in detail, just give a summary of the goals of your research and the methods you used.

Keep the audience engaged and focused

It’s not hard to lose the crowd when you’re presenting a lot of detail. It’s critical to provide enough information without boring your audience. The more you can help them focus and stay engaged, the more likely you will get positive results after the presentation.

One way to keep your audience focused is by providing findings in the format of stories. Framing your research findings as stories will allow you to provide much-needed clarity to people trying to understand the problem. You can use stories to both describe a problem or propose a solution. Stories will also help your audience develop empathy for your users.

Stories are the most powerful way to deliver information. Image source: Chelsea Hostetter, Austin Center for Design.

Pull out user quotes and use videos of how users interact with a product

Far more convincing than hearing a summary of user problems is letting the audience actually see real users experiencing those problems:

  • Pull out user quotes. User quotations are powerful tools for stating problems. Let users criticize the product in their own words. You can use quotes that you heard during user interviews or user testing sessions.
  • Play video clips in which users face problems. Even more efficient than using quotations is showing users making the comments themselves. Using videos from testing sessions will help you demonstrate how people perform tasks and what problems they encounter. You can add more weight to a particular problem by creating a video that demonstrates how a few different users experience a similar problem.

Add positive findings too

When we communicate research findings, we tend to focus on the negative aspects of a product’s user experience. We often take the positive aspects of a design for granted and exclude them from our report and presentation. But for the audience, it might be hard to hear only about problems. Listening to a long list of issues and user complaints isn’t inspirational. It’s always better to balance the negative with some positive aspects of a product; be sure to point out the positive findings.

Back up your findings with metrics

When stakeholders hear that users have experienced a problem, their first natural reaction will be asking how many people experienced it. If you don’t have this information you won’t be able to prove that it’s important. Thus, always try to backup your key findings with metrics. Success rates, average time taken to complete tasks, error rates, satisfaction results are all metrics that will help you prove your point whenever someone from your audience asks clarifying questions.

4. Plan next steps

Creating research deliverables and adequately presenting them to the audience are important steps, but your job as a researcher doesn’t end there. “What should we do next?” is a natural question that arises when the audience comprehends your findings. Without having a clear answer to this question, you won’t improve the design. Give your audience a clear plan on how to address the issues you’ve found.

Prioritize the problems the product team should solve

In most cases, it’s impossible to implement all recommendations simultaneously. To improve a product’s design, product teams need to focus on fixing the most severe problems first. The first natural step will be to assign priorities to your findings. You can prioritize issues based on following properties:

  • Issue impact: How severe the problem is. You can use ‘Critical, High, Medium, Low’ rates. An issue that causes someone to fail at an important task should be considered as Critical. A problem that annoys users, but does not keep them from completing a task, can be considered as Low.
  • Issue frequency: How often an issue occurs when a user interacts with a product. You can use ‘All the time, Frequently, Sometimes, In rare cases’ rates.

Also, consider the effort required to fix the problem. You can use human hours per task for this.

Provide actionable design recommendations

When it comes to suggesting design changes, try to find a balance between providing too general and too prescriptive recommendations. For example, you might say “provide more information about the order details on checkout page,” but this recommendation is too vague and doesn’t provide enough specific information for the designers who will redesign the page. At the same time, saying “Consider adding a product summary in table format with the following columns: item ID, name, quantity and price. All should be done in Roboto fonts with font size 16px,” will be too prescriptive.

Appoint individuals to different design changes

Having a different person responsible for each design change increases the chances that problems will be fixed. Work proactively with the product manager and stakeholders to decide which issues will be addressed and by whom, then schedule the work to be done.

Validate your decisions by creating a regular feedback loop

As with other aspects of design, research findings should be validated. The proper way of validating your design decisions is by testing design changes with real users. The results of user testing should be provided in the format of a regular feedback loop. Once you establish a proper feedback loop, it’ll be much easier to not only validate design decisions but also to demonstrate the value of your research to stakeholders.

Conclusion

Good design begins with proper research. To create a great user experience, design and research need to happen in tandem. This happens only when researchers inject themselves into the design process whenever possible.

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