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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.
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 simplest user research method is one-to-one interviews.
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.
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.
Next you need to get clear on what you want to know. List all the things you:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Think about how to make your research inclusive and representative. We all have our own biases. There are some questions we can ask ourselves.
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.
You'll want to plan your interview structure. The plan doesn't have to be fancy, but it needs to answer the following questions.
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.
Once you’ve worked through these steps it’s useful to record your plans clearly. Record your plans in our word template.
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:
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.
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:
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.
User interviews don’t always give you the information you need. Alternatives are:
Learn more about usability testing in our article about taking a test and learn approach.
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 2021Help us improve this content
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