Last Tuesday on June 28th, I participated in the “Introduction to User Research” workshop hosted by Seidenberg School of Computer Science at Pace University. I’m interested in pursuing UX research as a career so this workshop was a fantastic opportunity to see if it was something I would genuinely enjoy. I’m happy to say that my mind was blown away and this workshop exceeded my expectations by miles. Here is a summary of the workshop along with my biggest takeaways.
Following an introduction on what user research is, the event page from Eventbrite described the workshop as: During the three hour session, you will gain practical knowledge and participate in hands-on exercises that will prepare you for your own research. Learn how to establish research goals, find ideal test participants, develop and ask the right questions, probe for the underlying meaning and issues in your results and synthesize your findings.
The facilitator for this workshop was Stacey Sarris, an independent UX practitioner who works mostly with startups and teaches at Pace University, General Assembly and NYU. She’s currently working on her Doctor of Science in Information and Interaction Design from the University of Baltimore.
I said this same thing for the design thinking workshop: I have immense respect for people who can teach for three hours straight because, let me tell you, it is beyond exhausting. From the start, Stacey made us feel comfortable and did not waste a second to build that warm rapport with us. Her workshop was planned extremely well and flowed nicely from one activity to the next, making it enjoyable and easy to focus on the content.
Before the workshop, we were assigned to read this beginner’s guide to UX research and come up with four user interview questions in regards to a new app that we’re developing. It was a great warm-up activity to familiarize myself with user research and make sure I go into the workshop having the right mindset.
We started out by establishing a goal for the workshop, which was to discuss the importance of user research, how to conduct interviews and how to synthesize the information gathered. To make sure we were on the same page, we defined user research, the different types and the reasons why it is necessary. Following that, we focused on the steps of conducting user interviews.
Afterwards, we delved right into the different types of questions to ask and which to avoid. Her main piece of advice was to ask open-ended questions that focus on past behaviors and probe on users’ habits. In addition to avoiding close-ended questions, we should avoid leading questions that give interviewees implied opinions and compound questions that squeeze multiple inquiries into one. The whole point is to go in as unbiased as possible and ready to learn as much as we can about the user.
Finally, we were given a step-by-step guide on how to conduct these interviews. We discussed the various roles in a user interview such as the facilitator, participant and note-taker. In order to get participants to share as much as they can, we need to make them comfortable so we went over pointers on building rapport and assuring them that their answers are contributing to the study in a positive manner.
After we learned about user interviews, Stacey provided a demonstration and did so in a way that was realistic, while vocalizing her thought process. It helped me understand how she processed her user’s answers and thought about the next question she wanted to ask. It was our turn to put into practice everything we learned so we teamed up and facilitated our own user interviews. I realized that the coffee shop topic is something extremely simple and basic, yet, we all had different feelings towards it.
My intention for participating in this workshop was to complement what I am learning in the “Interaction Design” courses through University of California, San Diego’s Design Lab via Coursera. The online classroom doesn’t provide real-time feedback as well as the opportunity to ask questions when I don’t understand so it was great to be able to do that. In fact, my assignment for the “User Experience: Research & Prototyping” course that I’m currently enrolled in was to perform user interviews! I applied the skills I gained from this workshop and, if I may say so, submitted a pretty solid assignment.
1. Research is a necessity
One of the biggest business lessons in life is that user research is gold. If people say they already know what their customers want and that research is a waste of time, run far, far away! Understanding this put things into perspective in terms of the companies I want to work for in the future. If they value and prioritize user research and design, then I know my experience working for them would be fulfilling. A lot about the business can be revealed based on where UX fits into their company.
2. Stay focused on the goals
Even in the span of three hours, I saw how distracted I could get when my focus derailed from the goals. As a UX researcher, it’s important not to get lost in the vast sea of ideas and always remind yourself the goal of the study. The questions that are developed for the user interviews should go back to the goals and contribute to something that can be designed. If needed, the goal should be written down somewhere conspicuous so it can be referred to at all times.
3. Look at actual behaviors and habits
People love asking hypothetical questions about what they would or wouldn’t do but when you put them in those situations, their behaviors are completely different. For that reason, it’s important to look into actual behaviors and habits. Interviewers need to ask the users what they have done in the past because the answers provided will be more insightful and useful for the design team than answers for a set of hypothetical situations. I remember my ESL students loved giving me ideas but when I facilitated those activities, they never learned. Behavioral insight is key in identifying the user’s real needs.
4. Actively listen and empathize
During my teaching career, I made sure that the student-teacher ratio of talking time was approximately 70% to 30%. I believe this is definitely applicable to the user and interviewer ratio too. The goal of any research activity and interview is to gain insight from users and the only way to do that is to actively listen. This means putting aside anything that may be a distraction and taking solid notes as you indicate to the user that their thoughts are valid and powerful. I also like the idea of inserting strategic pauses because interviewees will elaborate without being asked. These answers are golden!
5. You’re not the user
The temptation to personify yourself as a user is strong but that urge must be eliminated! It’s so easy to fall into that trap of “Yes, I know what the user wants and I just need to ask questions that validate my findings!” However, anyone doing user interviews must step away from that mindset and eliminate any preconceived notions that he/she may have. Going into the interview curious and a bit “dumb” can be extremely beneficial in gaining valuable user insights. Plus, I love being mind blown when I learn things about people that are beyond my capacity of understanding. I can only do that if I forfeit myself as a user.
This workshop couldn’t have come at a better time. I have been meaning to start some research projects so I could put into practice what I’ve learned about UX. I’m also eager to begin building my experience in user research and develop a portfolio that allows others to understand what I’m capable of. The things I learned at this workshop were absolutely valuable and will spend time to review them. Once I do, I’m going to waste no time in facilitating those user interviews.
If this workshop were to be offered again, I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who is curious about user research as well as UX practitioners that want to enhance their knowledge of it. There was even a talk of a potential usability testing workshop and when that happens, I’ll certainly be there. The more I learn about UX research, the more I become interested in it. In fact, I’m becoming passionate about it because I am able to see the value of it. Research allows people to create products that not only solve their problems but also bring joy and value to their everyday activities.