2a. Preparing for user research

An introduction to user research

Getting started with the design thinking process

Design thinking often begins by empathizing with the people impacted by the topic or problem you’re focusing on. 

Developing a sense of empathy is about trying to understand what it's like to actually live someone else's life. To empathize with another person you must recognizing their situation, and experience a shared emotional state.

To do this, you will:

  • Figure out which people are impacted by the problem you want to solve, and talk to them.
  • Visit these people in the environments where they are typically located, such as their home, school, or place of work.
  • Ask open-ended questions that help you understand their point of view.
  • In addition to talking to people, take time to observe them doing tasks or activities related to the problem. Remember, sometimes what people say and what people do can be quite different.

This process is known as conducting “user research.” When it occurs at the beginning of a design process, it’s typically called “discovery” or “generative” user research.

Why do user research?

User research can help you:

  • Step away from your assumptions and develop a broader perspective.

  • Identify what the actual problem is that need to be solved - often it’s not what you initially expect.

  • Uncover requirements for an ideal solution.

  • Find new sources of design inspiration.

Let's take a look at a case study where the design team used user research to better understand how social and cultural factors would need to be considered in their solution.

Case study: Improving maternal health in the developing world

PATH is an international nonprofit organization that creates innovative solutions to global health problems. Their work includes lifesaving vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, and devices, as well as collaborative programs with communities.

PATH partnered with Artefact, a US-based design company, to investigate one of the most serious yet preventable health challenges in the developing world: maternal morbidity and mortality. To learn more about the challenge of maternal and newborn health, visit the PATH website.

Beginning with user research

The design team’s approach began with user research in Bangladesh and Uganda. They aimed to deeply understand the local environments, social systems, and cultures that impact care-seeking behavior and life-threatening infections. The team quickly realize that no matter how perfectly designed a diagnostic tool may be, if it wasn’t culturally acceptable, widespread adoption would not follow. 

Understanding local beliefs and traditions

Through their immersive research, the design team identified several factors that kept women from giving birth in clinics or hospitals, thus increasing the risk of infection for themselves or their babies. One of these cultural factors was the fear of “the evil eye” (a curse) that might be placed on a vulnerable newborn. Fearing this, women deliver babies in their homes, or in the homes of traditional birth attendants.

The design team had to accept this strong bias towards giving birth at home. They focused on reframing this risky infection period in a way that would allow them to introduce the diagnostic tool, while not threatening traditional beliefs.

Developing a design that fit with traditional beliefs

After months of discovery-design-iteration cycles, the team developed several concepts for diagnostic tools. One concept they came up with was a fever patch that women would wear immediately after labor.

The patch can detect a continuous fever over a 25-hour period, which is a signal of infection. Since many women experience intermittent fevers during labor, the seriousness of a continuous fever is commonly ignored.

The fever patch is a non-invasive measure that shows when a woman has a fever by filling with a red pattern that spreads over the patch. It gives an authoritative, clear signal to women and their untrained caregivers that immediate help should be sought - and fits within the cultural preference for giving birth at home.

Planning your user research

Identifying your research question

Planning your own user research begins by identifying which research question you will be trying to answer.

A good research question:

  • Is specific

  • Identifies a gap in knowledge that you want to explore

  • Identifies the type of user you will be focusing on

You can use the 5 W’s + H to help you generate your own research questions, and to think through different types of questions you might ask:

  • Who…?

  • What…?

  • Where…?

  • Why…?

  • When…?

  • How…?

Here are some examples of research questions that provide a good starting point for user research:

  • What prevents patients from having a restful night’s sleep in a hospital room?
  • What is the end-of-life experience like for young adults with terminal cancer?
  • What barriers do young girls face to receiving advanced education in rural areas?
  • What is the caregiving experience like for families who don't have frequent access to healthcare?
  • How do graduate student experiences in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields differ between men and women?
  • How do families support each other financially when they live in different countries?

Recruiting participants

With your research question as a guide, your next step will be to recruit participants - the people who you will talk to and observe during your research. To do this you will:

  1. Identify participants that you will recruit, making sure to include a variety of perspectives and backgrounds.
  2. Begin with a sample size of 10-12 participants. You may always add more as necessary until you get to the point where you are no longer hearing new themes emerge. 

Preparing materials

After you've recruited participants and scheduled your research sessions, the next step is to prepare your research materials.

It is helpful to bring a written list of questions you plan to ask (known as a discussion guide) to each session. We’ll explore how to write a good discussion guide in the next module.

You will also want to have tools on hand for documenting each session. These tools can be a notebook and pencil, a camera, an audio recorder or a video camera. Documenting your research is a critical step on the path to data analysis.

Tips for documenting your research findings

If you’re conducting a research session on your own, it may be difficult to take notes while also trying to take photos. In that case, an audio recorder can be a useful tool - it will free you up from having to take detailed written notes, as you will have a detailed audio record to refer to after the interview concludes.

Example of written notes from a research session

Remember that whenever you are planning to capture photos, record audio, or record video, it’s important that you ask your participant for permission first.

Also keep in mind that recording will not be appropriate for all locations - for example, in hospitals or certain office buildings taking photos or videos may not be allowed. In that case you may find it useful to sketch objects, floor plans, or workflows as part of your note-taking so that you can refer to them later.

Try it out: Select your research question

As a reminder, here are the example problems we introduced in the previous module:

  1. How might we encourage sustainability by reducing waste on campus?

  2. How might we give back to our neighbors by getting our campus more involved in the local community?

  3. How might we create more transformative leaders by sharing what we’re learning with other students?

Focusing on the same problem you selected in the previous module, identify a research question you want to focus on. Then, in your problem-specific learning group:

  • Share the research question you selected. Discuss some of the alternative questions you considered, and why you ultimately choose this particular question.
  • Share your initial thinking about the type of people you would like to talk to during your user research. Why would empathizing with these people be helpful or valuable as you attempt to answer your research question?