Choosing the right research methods

Well researched experiences have a real impact. I’ve written this article to talk about my top three favourite research methods, and when best to use them. There are a huge number of research options available to design teams today, and in order to narrow down exhaustive lists like this one, here are some places to start.  

If you don’t have a problem, you have a big problem.

No two projects are the same, and neither is any research prescription. What can be certain across the board is that some research is always better than none. It is essential to gather solid evidence to back up your decisions and visions, rather than guessing where to allocate your resources as well as your client’s.

1. Reach for the sky, with a workshop.

It is critical that at the start of any project, your plans are informed by the successes and failures of those who have tackled similar issues before you. There’s no glory in working it all out alone, only expanding scopes, missed deadlines, and misread KPIs. One of my favourite scope-defining, persona-finding activities for the start of any project, is a good old fashioned workshop. Workshops are an opportunity for you and your clients to dream, this is the time to gather and chew over thoughts and ideas that may not yet have seen the light of day. Ideally, this would be done in person, with good coffee, a humble stack of sticky notes, and some pastries, but recent events have led to the evolution of the remote workshop, like this recent one, carried out by ourselves alongside the lovely Marie Curie team. 

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This research method means facilitating creativity, which can be much tougher than it sounds. We all know the conditions that we ourselves need to be creative, and although everyone will be different, this is a great place to start. For workshops to go well we need everyone attending to feel as comfortable as possible, and able to freely examine the problem we’re all gathered there to solve. 

discovery workshop is a group discussion where you and your clients seek to agree on some answers or ideas in response to some key questions. Could you or your employees comfortably discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of your website, product, or service with your company director, CEO, the Queen, and her goldfish present? Maybe not. It’s worth considering who absolutely needs to be present, or whether you need to organise multiple sessions. 

Some questions to bear in mind.

  • Who are your current customers?
  • What’s working well for them?
  • What isn’t working well?
  • Do we have any data on this?
  • What will success look like?
  • How will we know if we have solved this issue?
  • Is everyone agreed on the above, or could the client do with holding court internally and then coming back?

2. Don’t guess, ask your future users.

The gold standard in moderated, explorative, qualitative user research will always be good user interviews. Best conducted in the first half/middle of any project, this is probably the most well-known method of user testing, and for good reason. These interviews can be conducted with the kinds of people you want to retain, as well as the kind of people you want to invite to engage with your brand. This is a great opportunity to get up close and personal with your current and future users to ask them any burning questions you may have. This interview can be used to watch your users navigate a current product, and ask them to talk through their thoughts and feelings, or it can be used to build up a more detailed picture of your current and future personas. I recommend that you prioritize the latter, knowing your audience is key to good work. 

User interviews can be conducted anywhere on a spectrum from the super formal, clinical, scripted approach, to the informal chat with a friend. At the research and discovery stages of a project, an informal chat works well. Remote or otherwise, this is your opportunity to notice the little things. Here are some questions to bear in mind.

Stay aware of the following:

  • Even if the talk is laid back, it’s still best to ask open-ended questions and pause and wait for your participant to speak. Subconsciously at least, your participant will initially be looking for a “right” answer. 
  • How was your participant's tone of voice when you mentioned a new process idea?
  • When recruiting participants, try to gather people from a range of cultural backgrounds and technical abilities. This is how you catch the details that could be alienating big groups of people.
  • Are your participants' shoulders high and stiff when they talk about their data?
  • Try to speak to both casual users, as well as extreme users, these are the people already using loopholes and workarounds to navigate problems you might only notice by using a product daily.
  • Try to actively assess your own assumptions, and build those into your questions. Don’t let them go unchecked. 
  • What are your participants' biggest peeves with the process or product you’re working on?
  • Is there anything about your current process or product that your participants absolutely love?


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3. Get back to basics, check your heuristics.

It’s the end of the project, you’ve had massive technical challenges, and there are slithers of budget left and everyone except you has suddenly gone on holiday and thrown their phones into the sea, and there’s still no excuse not to test. Heuristics are a set of questions and criteria that you can measure the success of your site against. They have a focus on accessibility and the things we know that make our users itch. Although a staple in most user experience and even development courses, user experience heuristics often get forgotten and left at the wayside as a method of testing. When you and your team have been staring at the same artboard or interface for weeks or even months, it becomes easy to get too focused on pixel-perfect details and begin to miss larger issues.

Taking half an hour to run through Neilson’s 10 interface design Heuristics is free and easy. It’s not easy to forget the basics but it is easy to forget to apply them everywhere. You can throw heuristics at some of the most used applications and websites and find room for improvement. The internet is awash with heuristic evaluations, both long and short, for inspiration. Here’s one that examines Headspace, an app known for it’s delightful and relaxing experience. 

This is also a fantastic time to hit two birds with one stone, involving people from other teams. This is a great time to reach out for opinions, start a conversation that will result in catching things that need fixing and nurturing your wider company community, empowering them with the skills to spot future issues too.

Things to consider:

  • Remember to come up with actionable next steps for every heuristic you test, to ensure what you discover gets iterated upon. 
  • If it’s too late for iterations, this type of review can form the basis of your internal project retrospective.
  • This type of testing can be done using anonymous group feedback, as well as alone. 

With no excuse not to test and multiple avenues for research regardless of your resources, these are three ways to begin to better integrate solid research into your projects. With every new project, resources can be better allocated, problems can be swerved, and you can further develop your intuition. Finally and when in doubt, a great next step would be to reach out to an experienced and friendly team like the one at Yoyo.

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