User Research: Worth The Time And Effort?

“It’s only natural to assume that everyone uses the Web the same way we do, and—like everyone else—we tend to think that our own behavior is much more orderly and sensible than it really is.” – Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (2014)

Any user research is better than no research. User research can be anything from surveys and interviews to focus groups and usability testing. User research is what places the user at the center of the design process and prevents us from designing for ourselves. User research is critical to understanding the needs of the target audience and to create products that are truly relevant to the people who will use the product.

Last month I moderated my first user research focus group to better understand the needs of international students at a UK university and what they expect from the university website. The main purpose of choosing a focus group strategy over one-on-one interviews or surveys was to reveal a multiplicity of attitudes, views, beliefs and feelings that are more likely to be discussed within a social setting through participant interaction. Furthermore, focus groups provide excellent feedback that can form the basis for making strategic decisions.

There were some interesting insights what were revealed during the course of the focus group.

Who were the users?

Grouping target users under the broad banner of “international students” proved to be problematic. International students from Europe had entirely different needs when compared with the needs of international students from Asia or America. The English language abilities of different students had an impact on their website user experience. Student age groups seemed to have an impact of the experience as well. Conducting a focus group with a variety of participants uncovered a variety of needs while revealing common themes across all types of users from the target audience.

What were their needs?

It was expected that a bulk of the users’ needs would be focused around accommodation and other requirements post travel to the UK. However, participants discussed at length the issues that faced when choosing a course. Users’ pointed out that university website did not have sufficient information on course content or if qualifications from their home country met entry requirements. Another common theme among participants was that they found it difficult to identify differences between similar courses (eg BA Football Studies vs. BA Football Studies with Business).

A one hour user research focus group revealed some glaring mistakes in our assumptions and pointed to crucial changes that needed to be made to the information architecture and content strategy of the website. Imagine completely skipping user research and investing time and money redesigning the entire website based on assumptions, only to later discover that there has been no improvement in the user experience for international students!

User research is an important investment for any design process. Only by interacting with the end user can designers disregard their own assumptions and perceptions and better understand the impact of the product on potential users.

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