Reading Between the Lines: Common Questions I Ask Before User Research

Research requests often come in the form of “we need user testing on this product and we need it by this time”. Product teams are looking to understand their product and get that info fast. Yet, many times a clear vision about why they need research doesn’t exist. Sometimes the person who requests the research isn’t who needs or wants the research.

Here are a few questions I ask before creating a user research plan and what I look for when getting background information.

“What are you trying to learn about this product/service?” or “What concerns are there about this product/service?”

This isn’t a new question, or one that UX practitioners don’t already ask, but it’s an important one.

The question helps determine if the request is to check off “user research” from a list or if there’s question. While I’m happy to do research, I have limited bandwidth. It’s also my job to focus on time-sensitive projects instead of “there’s no real timeline” projects. Usually, the broader the research request is the lower priority it is for the team. The more well-defined a problem area is, the more likely the team needs the user research to move forward. Use this opportunity to learn about the the request and why it’s important to the team.

“Who/where are those concerns coming from?”

This question gives insights into the product team’s motivations. Are they having a hard time pinpointing why certain behaviors happen? Is the product team trying to convince leadership they have the right solution? Is there little to no consensus around the project’s purpose? Did someone hear some anecdotal info that bubbled up to the point it became a big concern?

Understanding who wants research leads to a conversation about the team’s inner workings. Sometimes design challenges are about getting information to solve difficult problems. Sometimes design challenges are more about people struggling to navigate one another. User research isn’t only about findings, it’s also about knowing how to move teams forward.

“Are there disagreements about how the problem should be solved? Who has these opinions? How long has this discussion been happening?”

The thing about user research is that it delivers bad news every time. It depicts reality – the fact It depicts reality – the fact that you don’t control how your customers think, that they see things differently and that changes are needed if you’re ever going to please them. It doesn’t make you look good. That’s the whole point.Harry Brignull

It’s important to know who has a skin in the game and what prior discussions have been like. Some won’t be happy with the research outcomes especially in teams that don’t see eye-to-eye. A researcher needs to be objective and be mindful of the impact on individuals. The point isn’t to sugar coat, but to understand how to benefit an entire team, not individual’s agendas.

“What data points are there that say this might be a problem?”

The question moves away from the “what” to “how much do they know about the problem area”. Having qualitative and quantitative data upfront creates well-informed hypotheses to test. Focusing the approach helps get exactly what the team needs to learn. Yet, narrowing the research too much may leave out important unanticipated behaviors. Having a feel for how much a team knows gives structure to how open-ended or close-ended research needs to be.

Dig Deeper

Background questions are crucial to understanding how to best support the team. It provides info about the task at hand and how to best work with people. The questions above are only a starting point for what to ask and what to listen for. The ability to dig deeper generates insights that helps the UX researcher in the long-run.

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