UX researchers wear many hats and have a wide-ranging skillset at their disposal. It takes a wealth of experience in hands-on research to combine these skills into a cohesive arsenal. Even then, it is easy to forget some of the behaviours that good researchers exhibit on almost a subconscious level. Here are five of the less discussed yet vitally important behaviours displayed by true blue user experience researchers.
Thoroughly explore issues before formulating solutions
The key to finding an appropriate solution lies in a detailed investigation of the problem at hand. A common response from clients when debriefing on the issues that arose during user testing is “What if we just…”. For example, “What if we just move the link into the main navigation menu?” A UX researcher with a thorough understanding of the issue might discover that it is in fact the labelling, not the placement of the link that is causing the issue. Don’t expect the intricacies of an issue to become clear after only a few hours of user testing. Problems won’t always be as obvious as incorrect labelling and they may need to be teased out by asking the right questions of users, and knowing when to stop asking questions altogether.
Learn the value of silence
Silence is golden – a valuable lesson I learnt while studying qualitative research methods at university. While moderating a user testing session, don’t be afraid of silences that may initially feel awkward. It is important that you learn to identify when a participant is thinking, when they’re reading and when they are completely baffled with no clue as to what’s going on. Remember, if you’re talking more than (or as much as) your participant, then you need to take a step back. Ask open-ended questions and let participants speak freely, allowing them ample time to gather their thoughts and explore the interface. It is often tempting to interrupt a participant’s thought process with a prompt but by holding your tongue, you’ll discover the most insightful data can come at the end of a long silence.
Adapt your methodology on the fly
It is important to have a discussion/moderation guide that you can lean on throughout user testing. But remember this is merely a guide, not a script. The beauty of qualitative research lies in its flexibility – you aren’t limited by the stringent rigour of quantitative research methods. For user testing, this means you don’t necessarily have to run each session identically. If after five or six user tests you have consolidated a theme and gathered abundant evidence to support it, you should consider changing tack to see what else you can learn. Think of user testing as an orange. You are trying to squeeze out as much juice as possible. Sometimes it’s necessary to turn the orange around in your hand to extract every last drop.
Look at the experience holistically
While moderating user testing, it is easy to slip into the habit of looking solely at individual elements of an experience. For example, an ineffective navigation system, a hidden call to action, confusing copy and ill-considered visual design are all important issues to highlight, but the overall experience is always greater than the sum of its parts. Your participant’s holistic perception of the interface is what defines the user experience. It is always worthwhile to take a step back and look at how an experience will be tested as a whole rather than as a series of micro-interactions. This should be done both before and during user testing. Remember, you’re a UX researcher, not a UI researcher.
Analyse and report on pleasure points
No doubt your client/stakeholder will want to know about all of the issues and potholes observed during user testing. However, it is important that you do not concentrate your analysis and reporting exclusively on the negative aspects of an experience. Even if an experience performs poorly in user testing, there is always a silver lining to be pulled from the storm clouds. When debriefing your client on the research findings, consider concluding with the pleasure points as it’s always best to wrap up on a positive note. You can even turn the issues into positives. “You’re providing your users with a good experience, but if we can address these issues it can go from good to excellent!” This frames the issues as opportunities for improvement rather than roadblocks or obstacles.
Like most things, practice makes perfect, so don’t expect to execute all of this advice flawlessly if you’re new to UX research. Conversely, if this research caper is old hat to you, it’s still important to check your form and brush up on these aspects of your work every once in a while. Just remember to exhaust the issues, thrive on silence, squeeze the orange, take a step back and always look for the silver lining.