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Planning user research

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Use this page to learn about how to plan user research. The first step in planning any successful digital project is to explore what people need. Here are some methods to help you do that well.

What is user research?

The digital world uses the term 'user'. A user is the person who's experiencing the problem you want to solve, or someone who could become a user of the solution you provide. This could be your members, your supporters, or people you're working with.

User research is how you investigate their needs. It helps you understand:

  • the problem you're investigating and how people experience it
  • how people behave
  • what they need and why (their experience of your service may or may not be part of this).

The simplest user research method is one-to-one interviews.

Pick your problem and who you need to speak to

First you need to work out what you're trying to understand. Knowing what you want to learn will help you plan and conduct your research.

There are two things you need to know before you start.

  1. What is the problem you're trying to solve?
  2. Who are the people affected by that problem?

Thinking about the problem and who's affected by it helps you to avoid going down rabbit holes or working on problems that don’t matter.

Many different people will be involved in your projects and activities. Get started with your research by prioritising who you most need to know about for your project to be successful. This'll make planning your research simpler and more manageable. You can learn more about other groups of people at a later date.

You don’t need to talk to lots of people. Plan just three to five interviews to get you started.

Work out what you want to learn

Next you need to get clear on what you want to know. List all the things you:

  • do know (and have evidence for) which you don’t need to research
  • think you know (assumptions) but can’t evidence
  • don’t know.

If your list is short, then you can use it to plan your interview questions. If your list is long, ask yourself some questions to help you prioritise:

  • If I could only find out one or two things from my user research, what would it be?
  • What do I need to know in order to move my project forward?

This tells you how to plan your research, and how to decide when you've done enough research to move on to the next step.

One method of gathering your assumptions is to use a knowledge board.

Your responsibilities and ethics

It's important to consider the ethics of the research you're doing. Here are the important things you need to think about before you start.

Safeguarding considerations

User research can involve exploring emotionally sensitive topics. People may share things which can be upsetting or traumatic for you or them. It can also involve working with people who need safeguarding. Some of the people could also disclose something which you have a legal obligation to report. It can be unexpected so take note of the following.

  • Look after your research participants - know your organisation’s safeguarding policy and consider the effect your research could have on them.
  • Look after yourself - how will you keep yourself safe?

Frontline staff doing research will already know how to do these things. For other staff or volunteer researchers, try using the government digital team's practical steps in making research safer for everyone involved.

If you’re working with young or vulnerable people, and have little or no experience of digital safeguarding, this DigiSafe guide will help.

Getting consent

When you carry out your research, it's likely that you'll be keeping notes or recordings of the sessions you run. You'll need to get consent from every person you talk to, to make sure you are complying with data protection law.

To get informed consent you should explain:

  • who you are
  • why you are doing this
  • what the research is about
  • what it will involve
  • that it will be anonymous.

Making your research inclusive and representative

Think about how to make your research inclusive and representative. We all have our own biases. There are some questions we can ask ourselves.

  • Is anyone excluded from the research process?
  • What barriers might people have to getting involved?
  • How and when are people involved in the process?
  • What are the values and assumptions we have?

Learn how to deal with one of the biggest obstacles we face when creating digital content for diverse audiences and/or specific communities. Read our article on dealing with unconscious bias.

Plan your interviews

You'll want to plan your interview structure. The plan doesn't have to be fancy, but it needs to answer the following questions.

  • Who do you want to talk to?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • How will you recruit your participants?
  • How will you treat people involved?
  • What needs might your interviewees have?
  • What questions will you ask people who use your services?

The most important part of interview planning is getting the questions right. The types of question you ask are quite different to other kinds of research.

Read our top tips on getting your user interview questions right.

Once you’ve worked through these steps it’s useful to record your plans clearly. Record your plans in our word template.

Recruit your participants

The biggest challenge with research is finding people to interview or to help you with testing. There are lots of ways you can do this:

  • Put out a call to beneficiaries in your network
  • Reach out to staff who work with people you want to speak to
  • Use social media, making it clear who you need
  • For larger projects, or to reach entirely new groups of people, use a professional user-recruitment agency

Whatever you do, make sure you plan well ahead.

It takes time and patience to recruit the right participants, especially if you want to hear from people who are often described as ‘hard to reach’ or ‘vulnerable’.

Discover a comprehensive set of steps for finding participants for user research, based on government work.

Carry out the interviews and take great notes

Use your research plan to help you run your interviews smoothly. It should be a positive experience for you and your participants.

When you carry out the interviews, you need to get a close record of many of the things people said. You can also add your impressions and thoughts sparked by what they said.

You can either:

  • have someone join you for the interview who makes notes
  • record the interview and transcribe it (manually or using software) later.

Analysing your interview notes

Remember to leave enough time for analysis. Once you've done your research, you need to make sense of it so that you have actions to take.

The best plan is to analyse the raw notes or recordings from the research as a team.

You need to group the notes and make observations (often called insights). Insights bring together themes raised by your research participants in order to help you to prioritise the things your digital project needs to achieve.

Learn more about note-taking techniques and analysing your research.

Beyond the user interview

User interviews don’t always give you the information you need. Alternatives are:

  1. observations – observing people in their day-to-day lives or carrying out a task that relates to the service you want to provide.
  2. usability testing – watching participants try to complete specific tasks using your, or someone else's, service. Ask them to ‘think aloud’ as they move through the service so you understand what they’re doing, thinking and feeling.
  3. stakeholder interviews – talk to staff or stakeholders who work with the people you want to learn more about. They may give you another angle on the problem, which the people you're helping have not expressed.

Learn more about usability testing in our article about taking a test and learn approach.

Learning more about user research and planning digital projects

Need a confidence boost? Want to check you've got everything covered? Watch CAST’s short video summarising how to do user research.

If you want support or training to get started with user research look out for these free online courses. Try a Catalyst design hop.

Want more ideas? Look for Catalyst blogs focused on user research.

Last reviewed: 02 March 2021

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 02 March 2021

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