How to Start a User Research Practice From Scratch

It’s your first day as a user experience designer at a new company. You’re excited not only to design and prototype and pretend you’re more font savvy than your more experienced peers, but also to dig in and start doing some user research. You ask the rest of the team what kind of user research they do. You are met with some waffling around the topic but the answer makes itself clear to you. There is no user research being done.

I’m assuming I’m not the only one this has happened to. You’re hired on as a user experience designer and the existing team or business does everything but talk to the end user. Instead of being discouraged, take this as an opportunity. You are going to build a user research offering. The question is, how?

I’ll share the steps I took to build out a user research offering from scratch and hopefully help you put the “U” in UX design.

Do Research on How to Research

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I hope you know how to use Google! Because it is going to be your friend. Don’t skimp on understanding the basics. Scour the web for ideas on how to do research. Read blog posts (like this one!), study the pros, read up on techniques. It’s also helpful to jump into a community of UX professionals to swap stories. IxDA is a nationally run organization that more than likely has a chapter in your neck of the woods.

Here are some great resources you can use to educate yourself and get your user research practice up and running:

Nielsen Norman Group

InVision Blog

Sarah Doody (Blog)

Sans Francisco (ToolKit)

Muzli (Plugin)

Wait For The Right Place to Start

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In starting up with user research, you have to be a little patient. It can take a few months of waiting until the right project comes up to inject the first batch of user research into your teams’ design process. While some might advise to start yesterday, I advise to wait until you and your team are ready to commit the time and effort into it.

When I was building out a user research offering for a business I worked for, we waited until we had an internal project to work on to really bust out some data gathering. This allowed us do it with low costs, low risk and some wiggle room to mess up. We didn’t need to do any external user gathering as the tool we were working on would only be used by the internal employees.

We were able to “volunteer” employees to be our users and they were overwhelmingly happy to have their voices heard on the design of a tool they would use everyday. We also didn’t need to worry about billing a client for a new process that we were unsure if we could do successfully.

We were able to take our success applying user research to our design process on this project to create positive buzz around the business for user research which allowed us to practice the process on another internal project and then begin selling the offering to our clients.

I can’t tell you exactly where and what project to start your own user research offering on, but look for a project where you have some wiggle room (both time and financial) to learn and grow and that would not jeopardize your cash flow in the process are my best tips in this regard.

Start Small & Focus

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The key to starting to do user research is the key to starting anything else. Just take the first steps. And guess what? Those steps don’t have to be huge. Don’t hit the ground sprinting. You have to crawl before you can walk.

Don’t jump in trying to run a usability test, heat mapping, user interviews and segmentation study all at the same time. Find one method you think could add some value to your project and just do that one thing well. Oh and on the subject of doing things well…

Expect to be Bad at First

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Your first foray into user research will not be your best one. The first few usability tests I moderated were really rough. The data I collected was poor. I asked leading questions. I made the tests more about my assumptions than I did on listening to the users. I sweat a lot and probably made some people uncomfortable. It wasn’t pretty.

But I got a little better every time I conducted a test.

The key here is to focus on improving your skills, not being perfect day one. Unless you can be perfect day one. In which case, why are you reading this?

Don’t Get Hung Up on Tools

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I spent a significant amount of time fumbling around the idea of needing the perfect tool to collect my user research at first.

As designers we’re conditioned to be very choosy about which tools we use. In interface design, there are constant debates about whether you should use Sketch or Figma or Adobe XD and don’t even get me started on the numerous prototyping tools.

There are a lot of tools you can use for user research. But most are really expensive. It’s hard when starting out with your user researching offering to get approval for or feel confident enough to drop the large sums of cash these tools ask for. The good news is, the best place to start is with a pen and paper.

The thing with user research is that the data you are collecting is far more important than how you collect it. Just focus on capturing data and you will be off to a great start. A smartphone camera, a microphone and good old fashioned note taking will take you very far.

Find Patterns in Your Data

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Sometimes, you really have to work the data until the patterns show up

This is one of the largest stumbling blocks in starting out with user research. Or it was for me at least. After you collect data on your users, how do you make sense of it? In the UX field, unless your data produces some actionable insights, it’s most likely not going to get you anywhere.

The simplest way to find actionable insights is to look for patterns. It doesn’t matter whether you are working with quantitative or qualitative data, patterns are king in UX research. It could be something like an overwhelming majority of users couldn’t find an element on the page or even just that the word “Frustrated” kept coming up in user interviews.

These patterns are used to create codes which can be used to analyze larger amounts of data gathered or just better understand they data you already have. Think of codes as applying hashtags to different parts of the data you have collected. A coworker of mine recently gave a really great talk on how to code data and you should definitely check it out if it is a topic you’d like to know a little bit more about.

Present Your Data

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The data you gathered and the findings you have grabbed almost always needs to be presented to other people on the project, stakeholders, etc. And when you’re just getting started, understanding the context of who you are presenting to is the key to nailing a research findings presentation.

There is no one best way to do this. A rule of thumb is always to support your claims with the data to back it up. Think of it like writing a book report. But how you do it is up to you. Powerpoint is a great place to start.

When presenting big picture idea data to stakeholders, I decided that instead of just showing numbers (which can be very effective and shouldn’t be discounted) I would present a larger statement describing the findings and accompany it with a gif that brought some levity and memorability to the findings. If you haven’t noticed yet I apprecitate a good gif.

Focus on what your audience needs to know and start there. Always be ready to back up any of your findings with your collected data, but don’t ever aim to overwhelm them with it.

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