How to be a Researcher — A Primer

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Photo by Alireza Attari on Unsplash

When in the middle of a digital transformation it isn’t uncommon for business people to want to dig in and be involved. In this case we were doing a joint research effort between product management, business and UX that we called Shadowing. If you want to get technical, it was contextual inquiry where we would go and sit for 2–3 hours and watch analysts go about their daily tasks. These guide lines instructed my collaborators on how to become better listeners and researchers. We can’t always control the scenarios in which our research is done and sometimes can’t even control how it gets done but if we can align and work with partners to get it done we will wind up further along than we would be if we insisted on “doing it right” and getting completely ignored.

The guidelines below were written to help teach fresh business analysts how to perform this type of research but the advice applies to anyone who is just getting primed on how to conduct research. If you find it helpful feel free to use this as a jumping off point for your own work and conversations.

Shadowing is a great way to understand not just what our users say they do but really dig in and understand what it is that they actually do. To help make sure that you collect the information that you need and that the product needs keep the following best practices in mind.

Keep an open mind

While shadowing you may find that users do things that are counter intuitive or wrong. That is okay. Don’t correct them. Instead try and learn about why they are doing this. Have the mind that you are there to learn from them. There are opportunities for our business that we don’t have perspective on because we are not them. If you go in ready to learn and be taught you will likely find new ideas that you can bring back to the team.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” ― Shunryu Suzuki

Be slow to speak and quick to listen

Our users have a different perspective than we do. Some have been doing this a long time while others only a short while. Either way we want to soak up as much of their knowledge as we can. When you sit with them try and actively listen to them instead of asking questions. What are their motivations, ambitions, goals, fears, and pains? All of these can be leveraged into valuable insight for our product but we won’t get any of it unless we listen.

Observe what users do, not just what they say

It is uncomfortable to have someone watching over your shoulder. Its weird for our users, it feels weird for us. Because of this our users will likely tell us things that they think we want to hear or what they know they are supposed to say. For this reason consider taking note of what users are doing or not doing not just what they say they would do.

Keep an eye out for what’s missing

In addition to taking note of what the user is doing or seeing. Keep an eye and ear open for what they are not doing or avoiding. These invisible cues can tell us a lot. Did they not see the button? Maybe a current tool isn’t up to par for what they actually need. Maybe there are emotional circumstances or context that make them hesitant to do things a certain way. All of these invisible tells are the true story of our users. Taking the intangibles into account allows us to design for the real world and mitigate the risks that cost time and money months down the road.

Written by

A UX Designer in Atlanta focused on mentoring, modular UI and using python as a research method.

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