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Last updated on 12/5/18

Familiarize yourself with research methods

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Depending on the type of information you're hoping to uncover, as well as what stage you are in the design process, different types of research are appropriate. Some are qualitative (understand attitudes, emotions, and behaviors) while others are quantitative (examines metrics, data, and numbers) methods. In this chapter we'll take a quick look at different methodologies and when they can be used. Then we'll dive deeper into many of them in this course, and in future courses as well.

Research can be viewed across different spectrums depending on the kind of information you're looking for, from working to define your problem, to testing solutions on users:

  • Generative/exploratory research is what happens when you're trying to get an overall sense of things before you define what you're solving. (Qualitative)

  • Descriptive/explanatory research has a tighter focus in order to be able to better describe your area of interest/study.  (Qualitative)

  • Evaluative research involves testing prototypes and possible solutions in order to assess its effectiveness. This is best accomplished through usability testing, or testing products on users to see if they work as intended.

  • Research can also cover the spectrum of attitudes (points of view, thoughts, emotions) and behaviors (actions, reactions).

Research methods visualized on a spectrum by Steve Mulder. 

Qualitative methods

Here's a breakdown of qualitative methods often used by designers:

  • Competitive analysis is a critical examination of competitors, which may include a SWOT analysis of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. This not only helps you better understand the marketplace, it can give you insights into how you can differentiate your product.

  • Interviews and talking to people (users) from your target demographic are crucial to make sure you are designing a product or service that users will use, and understand how to use. Interviews can be formal, or a simple conversation.

  • Ethnography means getting out and observing users in their own environment (aka "field research") in order to get a better sense of context, and enables you to ask more relevant questions based on your own observations.

  • Diary studies are when the person you are interviewing records their own video interview or play-by-play. For instance, if you wanted to better understand teenagers' habits around using online search engines to do their homework, they may be timid in front of an interviewer, but comfortable filming their own experience. Similarly, diary studies can be helpful in situations where interviewers are not allowed behind closed doors, or have access to the user due to location or circumstances.

  • Card sorting is a low fidelity (note cards and pen) way of mapping out the structure of something. For example, rather than having a design team dictate the navigation of a website, give potential users a set of note cards with the different website sections and ask them to organize it in a way that makes sense to them. Then, have them walk you through their approach.

  • Usability testing is a way to test and evaluate products and prototypes with actual users.  The users are given a task – making a purchase, signing up for a newsletter, finding the opening hours or contact information – to complete, and walk through their thought process out loud as they attempt various steps. This allows the design team to highlight areas of confusion or see where improvement is needed.

  • Heuristic evaluation or analysis provides a checklist of principles (by Jakob Nielsen) in order to examine the usability of a digital product.

  • Surveys are a way to collect information when we don't have a lot of time to spend "in the field". They can be used early in the process to confirm assumptions and gather data, or to gain additional insights at any phase. The risk of surveys is that everyone you send them to will not respond. Also, it's hard to write an effective survey.

  • Eye tracking is a way to understand where eyes go on the page. This helps to determine if key information is visible to users. You need special technical devices to test this. Similarly heat maps show where the most activity happens on a webpage.

Quantitative methods

  • Data analysis examines metrics from tools like Google Analytics, or studies. In looking at numbers for things like "bounce rates" (how fast people leave your website) you can learn a lot about their behaviors.

  • A/B testing refers to testing two (or multiple) variations of anything from a homepage design to a newsletter layout.  Collecting data from users to examine things like open rates can determine which variation performs better, and therefore, is more effective with users.

  • Surveys and questionnaires can also be used to collect quantitative data to gain insight into how many people do something, or what percentage of users participate in a certain activity.

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