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Framework User Research Toolkit


1 - Preparation

Defining your users

Narrowing down user needs when there are multiple users is hard. However, if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. You must be able to define user needs to design a usable service.

Tips to define your users when multiple users are involved include:

  • Picking a primary user group: This does not mean excluding other user groups, or making services that some users won’t like. For instance, the primary user for a wheelchair ramp is a wheelchair user, but those ramps will also be used and enjoyed by people with baby strollers or people who are skateboarding.
  • Focus on the scenario or situation: A specific situation will attract specific users. For example, although taking the bus is a service designed for "everyone" in mind, there will be specific groups of users who will take the bus more often than others. From the scenario, you can start designing your study based on different groups in that specific situation.
  • Focus on extreme users: World leading design firms like IDEO suggest using "extreme users" to get critical insights. Extreme users tend to have the same needs as the average users, but their needs are much more amplified. For instance, if you managed a gym, your extreme users might be ultra-marathoners, and people brand new to exercise. This is the opposite of the common approach to defining users very broadly. For example, everyone in Ontario is my user group.
  • Focus on accessibility: Users with special needs, similar to extreme users, are often good at articulating the problems more than generic users might experience, but have a harder time putting their finger on it. Speaking to a small number of extreme users can give you insights into the needs of most of your users. You often find new insights, and clever workarounds that help improve services for everyone.

Defining a user need to focus on

Identifying a single user need will help you focus on a specific problem. It will also help you define who your users are.

Tips for defining a user need to focus on:

  • Ask around: Find the people who are already trying to make things better and understand what approach they took.
  • Find what’s not working: Find failures in the service. What were the users trying to do or what were they thinking when they tried to complete the service? Document as you go.
  • Use existing data: Analytics are a great way to uncover how users behave on your website and find areas where users struggle. Use usability tests to find out why users struggle.
  • Consider existing government services: Think about services that are only provided by government. Are you competing with any other service providers? Are there other ways that users can meet the same goal?
  • Consider new policies: Ask your policy team what is on the political agenda for the future. This is a great opportunity to plan ahead and gather feedback from users that would be affected by new policies before timelines get too tight to use the research.
  • Hypothesize and prototype: Start by deciding on the questions you want to answer. Make predictions about what you think users will do, and then create tests around those assumptions and observe what happens.

Identifying the most suitable user research technique with your project phase

Depending on where you are in the product development life cycle will depend on what kind of research you do. The journey from discovery to live is not about taking a long time to build a ‘grand’ product that considers as many things as possible. The goal is to build a minimal viable product (MVP) where:

  • you involve users throughout the process to help you understand if you are building what will ultimately solve their problems
  • user research will help your team prioritize, gather feedback, set criterias to test against what is being built
  • you start small by focusing on the essentials and plan for other not-so-crucial elements for future releases
  • you learn what works and doesn’t work as quickly and early as possible, rather than learning about them near launch or post-launch when it takes more resources to modify and/or fix what has already been built

Discovery phase

At this phase, you focus on generative research. Your focus is discovering what the problems are.

If you have not done user research so far but already have a solution in mind, this is a great opportunity to challenge your assumptions. It is in your best interest to challenge them early to minimize unexpected surprises. If you discover areas of success and failure early on, it is easier to prioritize and plan for next steps sooner rather than later when more time and resources are dedicated to the project. You may:

  • conduct interviews to discover user problems and needs
  • conduct an ethnography study (shadow someone) to observe what the user is going through
  • usability test an existing service to better identify user challenges and points of failure when completing tasks (this could include using an existing design from the ministry or from other public service sectors as a point of reference)

Alpha phase

At this phase, you focus on exploratory research. Based on problems identified in the discovery phase, you will explore multiple concepts and different options to go about tackling the problems. The goal at this phase is not to create a beautiful product off the bat, but to explore different paths to solve the problem and worry about polishing the details in later phases. You may:

  • collaborate with co-creators to brainstorm and test different approaches
  • guerrilla test on a few different concepts and observe the user’s reactions
  • conduct preference tests to figure out the pros and cons of multiple concepts
  • focus on testing with low fidelity prototypes to test your hypothesis. The reason why you use low-fidelity prototypes, rather than polished high fidelity prototypes, is because you will be exploring multiple concepts that may or may not move forward. Rather than focus on details of the prototype, you are focusing on broad concepts.

Beta phase

At this phase, you would have already narrowed down a concept and are focused on working out the details. You may:

  • conduct card sorting exercise to structure menu items on your web page
  • guerrilla test on specific elements of the product to ensure participants understand what you are asking them to do
  • usability test on high fidelity prototypes to identify potential usability issues. The purpose is to take a product idea and iterate to make gradual improvements based on feedback.

Planning the user research

Depending what user research technique you will use there are various factors you need to consider.

Interviews and User Testing

  • it is best to conduct this type of user research with one user at a time, however if you're struggling for time and need to get multiple users in at once you need to ensure you have enough colleagues to interview or observe one user each.
  • make sure you've got the right space to conduct the research - soundproof room, spacious and the appropriate technology can be set up
  • speaking of technology if you need to get devices for the testing make sure they're capable of testing what you want, won't hamper the testing and is there a need to test on multiple devices
  • consider if you'll need any special software like screen recording or eye tracking
  • decide how you are going to record the interview - note taking, voice recording or video recording

Shadowing and Observations

  • where is the best location to conduct this research - at the users home, in the council office, in a false environment
  • you need to consider timing as this will impact your results e.g. if the office is busy or you're doing it at their home when all the family is home this may distract the user (this isn't necessarily a bad thing as this can be a truer test but you need to consider what you're focusing on with this research to decide what's best)
  • do you need more than one member of staff, particularly for personal safety reasons
  • decide how you are going to record the interview - note taking, voice recording or video recording

Brainstorming and Focus Groups

  • do you want one large session for users to bounce off each other or smaller more focused groups to ensure everyone has their say
  • how are you going to get the users to interact with you - speaking, post its, role play etc
  • consider how you will keep the group focused - do you need more than one facilitator

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The Digital Service team at Maidstone Borough Council lead on the research, design and development of user centered services for residents in Maidstone

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