02 Nov 2023

Mastering User Research: Seven Golden Rules for Success (Guest blog by Zaizi)

This guest blog from Zaizi is an extract from their new ebook: How to overcome the inevitable challenges in government agile delivery.

User research offers a window into the minds and behaviours of users, enabling us to create solutions that truly meet their needs. However, conducting effective user research can be a challenging task, especially when different team members have varying opinions on what constitutes good research. At Zaizi, we’ve developed seven golden rules that help to overcome these challenges and ensure that user research delivers maximum value.

1. Ensure everyone understands the purpose of research

First make sure that all team members, including public sector department staff and external consultants, understand the purpose of user research. User research is not just a formality but a crucial process that informs decision-making at every phase of a project. It helps us understand the barriers users face, their behaviours, motivations, and unmet needs. Whether you are in the discovery, alpha, beta, or sustainability phase, research should ground your ideas in reality, bridging the gap between design and the real world.

Misalignment in understanding the role of research can lead to problems down the line. It's essential to uncover and resolve any mismatch of expectations, fostering a shared vision of research's purpose.

2. Pinpoint the big question that matters

Effective user research isn't about seeking validation for preconceived solutions. Instead, it's about discovering what we don't know and identifying interventions that can significantly improve users' lives. User research should provide evidence that helps us determine when to move forward and whether a viable product or service can be developed.

By focusing on the essential questions and avoiding the temptation to confirm existing biases, we unlock the potential to explore simpler solutions that address the root causes of user issues.

3. Match the methodology to information need

User research comes in various forms, from surveys and interviews to focus groups and large sample sizes. The choice of research methodology should align with the information needed to answer the fundamental questions. To ensure clarity, it's crucial to break down complex research terminology into simpler language.

Qualitative research, for example, is suited for understanding "what" and "why" things happen, while quantitative research is ideal for determining "how often" something occurs. Understanding which method to employ and when to use it is essential to ensure the research is effective.

4. Consider all user needs

User research should encompass a diverse range of users, including those with accessibility needs, lower digital literacy, and individuals from hard-to-reach and minority groups. Additionally, it's essential to consider the needs of advisors, case workers, and support staff who interact with the product or service, even if they don't use it in the same way as end-users.

Focusing on representative samples rather than statistically significant numbers is cost-effective and pragmatic for most projects. Ensuring diversity in age, ethnicity, gender, and economic background is vital to creating inclusive solutions.

5. Ensure research is iterative and embedded

Research should be an ongoing, iterative process rather than a one-time activity. It should be embedded throughout the design process, informing and de-risking subsequent steps. Instead of trying to cover everything, it's better to conduct research that informs the immediate next steps. This approach ensures that the insights gathered are actionable and can be implemented effectively.

User research isn't confined to the discovery phase; it should continue throughout the project's lifecycle. Iterative research allows for incremental improvements and a greater understanding of user needs.

6. Set guardrails for project-team input

While there is inherent uncertainty in user research, it's crucial to establish how the project team will be involved in the process. Clear roles, responsibilities, and boundaries must be defined, especially when working with colleagues from client teams who may want to engage in the research process.

For instance, in semi-structured interviews, it's vital to establish ground rules about when observers can contribute to avoid invalid research that might lead to false confidence in the product or service.

7. Remember: Uncomfortable truths often deliver the most value

User research should challenge existing policies, beliefs, and biases. Uncovering uncomfortable truths is often a sign that research is being conducted effectively. Such insights can have significant implications for the project, including costs, resources, and time.

User research should not merely serve as a rubber stamp for pre-made decisions but as a tool to challenge thoughts and assumptions, ultimately leading to better services and decisions.
These rules serve as a roadmap for conducting effective user research. Mastering them will help your project teams navigate the complex world of user research successfully.
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