What is User Research?
User experience (UX) design is designing functional, efficient, easy and delightful experiences for users of digital or even physical day to day products. Functional design means that the item does what it is supposed to do, a can opener opens cans and a bottle opener opens bottles. Efficient means the user was not forced to spend more effort than needed in order to obtain what they wanted. Easy means that for a lay user of the product, it is clear how they are meant to be used, and they shouldn’t necessarily require a manual. Delightful simply means that the experience of the product was able to put a smile on your face: think your favourite UPI app. These experiences can be found in anything as mundane as a toothbrush, as obvious as an app, or as macro as walking through a museum.
When we talk about users of products, they could be adult people or children, but are not limited to them, some users of products could be pets or domestic animals, think chew toys! But we can generalize and think of people and the products could be anything from software to household products. The users, themselves, could be using the product wearing different hats and under different roles. The same user could be accessing electronic health records in a hospital as a nurse during their day job, and can be accessing them as a patient in case they fall ill. For this, designing the products around the people and their roles are crucial.
Imagine the number of products, number of different users and the number of different roles each one person can have. It would be very hard to have all of them learn all products and in all roles. Designing products around people such that we don’t need to teach them everything versus they ‘just understand’ how to use it is crucial. Understanding people and the way they use products in order to improve the design is what we do as a part of the UX Research.
As part of understanding the researchers, we conduct interviews, perform tests, or use one of many possible methods to understand the user’s needs, behaviours, desires etc. From these, we try to convert these into actual interventions in the product and take it back to them, all the while improving the functionality, efficiency, ease of use, or delight in the product. Thus User Research is one part in the entire product development cycle that helps create all the soda cans, computer keyboards and any other product you see around you!
“To be a great designer, you need to look a little deeper into how people think and act.” - Paul Boag, Cofounder of Headscape Limited
Just to add some more nuance to what user experience design encompasses, we have to understand that often products are not very what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSWYG). Probably, something as ubiquitous as a knife is probably easy enough to understand as soon as you see it. We use it to cut something. However, speak to a chef and they may be able to differentiate from all the different knives - a butter knife from a paring knife - and that is because their mental model about the object, the environment it is used in is probably more nuanced than a lay person user. A mental model is what the user believes about a system.
This element of mental model easily translates to Human-Computer interactions too and to be specific the way people interact with an app. Since the advent of smart touch phones, a decade ago, people have learned and gotten used to the concept of using the same set of actions, touch, swipe or pan on the phone on a variety of apps to get almost anything done on the internet. However, take a new feature such as voice assistants on apps and more specifically for the discussion at hand, a voice controlled assistant on an e-ticketing app. For old users that come to the website to book their train tickets, their mental model may be to type or tap the city of source and destination, add the date, select the train and proceed to book. What some of them wouldn’t know is that they could fill the city names, and other parameters and even book the ticket by voice too, because it wasn’t part of their existing mental model about the system.
In such cases it is the UX designer’s role to understand the existing mental models of the users, and either design and make the product such that it fits their existing model, or if necessary, help them change their existing mental model so that they can adopt the new interventions. Towards this end the UX designer first has to understand the user’s mental model and then come up with ways to bridge gaps, if any, between the mental model required and that of the users currently have.
Sometimes, this is pointing out the gap in the mental model to test users and asking them why they felt they had initially had a gap in their mental model, in case they missed the intervention, like the voice assistant, in this case, for example. Other times, it is not that obvious because the reason may have been a subconscious one that the user may not be able to pin down enough to then explain.
In such cases the researcher may resort to user testing methods such as ‘thinking out loud’, where the researcher will ask the user to speak aloud while using the app or product. This gives insights into the user’s mental model. The researcher then takes note of these insights and strives towards improving the user’s mental model by making interventions like making clearer labels or buttons on the interface of the app, like in this case.
“The credo is: Walk in the shoes of a potential user!” - The Design Thinking Playbook by Michael Lewrick, Patrick Link, Larry Leifer
When trying to understand the mental model of the users, the researcher would apply empathy in order to understand the emotion, hopes, expectations or even fears of the user when using the product. When using an UPI app for example, the user may expect that when pressing the transfer funds button, the funds would actually be transferred between them and someone else, similarly, some users may have a starting fear of UPI apps, since it is a new technology and they worry that due some imperfections their money may be lost and they would have to work hard to retrieve it. Thus if a user researcher understands these they can add interventions or changes to make sure expectations are met and fears allayed. To do this the researcher has to empathize with the user, put themselves in the user’s shoes and try to see from the user’s lens what their problems or delights could be. Even though user researchers do a lot of quantitative research, in order to be objective about classifying problems, empathy is required to truly understand the problem and to generate possible solutions to them.
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