User Research

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User Research is the study and observation of individuals to understand their behaviors, motivations, and goals in the context in which they occur. Our ability to empathize and share in what our users are thinking, feeling, and doing is the foundation of a human-centered design process.

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Related Mindset:




Idea Generation


The input for User Research is the definition of user segments or archetypes and the definition of a research objective.


The output of User Research is the demonstration of research findings. In order to generate potential portfolio level items, strategic themes and Epics will result from the analysis and synthesis of research findings.

It is the work of User Research that shows us what their needs are, where the biggest challenges exist, and what is our opportunity to delight.

It is an all encompassing term for soliciting insights and feedback from a group of individuals about a product or service. In this context, generative or exploratory User Research aims at uncovering problems to solve. It helps identify opportunities and generate ideas. It creates empathy with a group of people who may be existing or potential consumers of a product or service.

The approach to conducting User Research is methodical and should include:

  1. Defining a research objective - A research objective identifies what the research aims to uncover and what questions will be answered.

  2. Create a research plan - The research plan documents all the specifics of the research to be conducted.

    • Define a focus: Create a succinct statement that summarizes the research objective.
    • State a research hypothesis: What is already known about the target audience?
    • Set the context: Identify when and where the research will take place.
    • Identify the participants: Who participates in the research will be critical to the outcomes. Target 5-7 research participants per user/customer segment. Also include details on how to recruit participants.
    • Set a schedule: Include when recruiting will occur, when the research will be executed, and when analysis and synthesis will take place. Set expectations for when findings will be shared.
    • Write questions to be answered: Be specific about what information is being sought.
    • Plan of action: Define an approach, methods, and activities to conduct in order to gather information.
    • Review: A plan is in place but should be refined by socializing it and getting feedback, iterating with the team and stakeholders in preparation for conducting research.
  3. Conduct research - Observe and interview research participants in their environment. Follow best practices and leverage a two-person team to conduct the sessions, one facilitator and one note taker. Consent forms should be signed prior to beginning each session. Ensure that participants agree to sessions being recorded. The schedule should allow for breaks between sessions so that findings can be briefly summarized after and changes in the research approach can be discussed and agreed upon.

  4. Analyze results and synthesize findings - Analysis is the identification of facts uncovered in User Research. It is the sorting and organization of data collected used to identify who a design is for, what behaviors, thoughts, and feelings they encounter, and the context in which they take place. Some useful tools to represent data collected in interviews include Personas, Archetypes, and Journey Maps.

Synthesis is the identification of insights based on these facts. It begins the generation of portfolio level strategic themes and Epics by clearly defining a problem to solve and formulating an approach to solve it.

Common Pitfalls

User Research is the most fundamentally essential part of human-centered design, but some of these pitfalls can lead to a failed research effort:

  • Not planning adequately for recruiting - Recruiting requires lead time be started as soon as feasible. The more specific a target user is, (users of proprietary enterprise software or experts in a small field) the more lead time is necessary. Compensation can speed up the recruiting process and should be factored into the project budget early on.
  • Bringing bias to research - It’s possible to find data that the researcher or organization wants to hear at the sacrifice of more relevant or even critical data. It is impossible to completely eliminate bias during research, but it can be reduced. Questions should be non-leading and open-ended. Having more than one person involved during research can help limit bias.
  • Not asking the right questions - A round of research might not lead to design insights unless the proper questions are asked. Having a designer involved in research greatly reduces this.


There are many different tools and methods for conducting User Research but below are some of the essentials for generative research:

  • Literature Review
  • Usability Testing
  • Online Surveys
  • User Interviews
  • Contextual Inquiry/Field Observation
  • Diary/Journal Studies