A chart indicating a distribution of results for measurements of success, directness, and time taken.

Requirements gathering (or product discovery) is a part of every development project. We must know what to build before we build it, and we must refine our understanding of what we are building as we move along. Discovery workshops are a format well-suited for certain types of projects before development begins, although requirements gathering continues throughout a development project.

Whether conducted at the onset of a project or throughout the development effort, product discovery must be informed by insights and data.

This is the first of four blog posts devoted to conducting research in the context of user-centered design and development. In this post, I will look at the reasons for doing research and the types of research at our disposal. In the next blog posts, I will present and explain the specific user experience (UX) research methods we favor at Caktus.

Reasons for Doing Research

In user-centered application design and development, research is done in order to:

  • Learn who the users are, what they do, how they work, how they feel and think.
  • Describe context(s) in which users operate with and without the technology we’re building.
  • Understand user goals, needs, wants, and pain points.
  • Understand user mental models.
  • Learn how users accomplish tasks in the context of an application as well as independently of any technology.
  • Find out what experiences competitors are building and how those experiences work for users.
  • Gather information necessary to define information architecture and content structure.
  • Test assumptions made about the users, their contexts, and their interactions with the application we’re building.
  • Identify where the application fails to support user outcomes or what needs to be done to support them.
  • Analyse usage patterns of an existing application.
  • Analyze users’ behavioral patterns with regard to the technology under consideration.

Because of its emphasis on users, we call this type of research UX research.

Types of UX Research

UX research can be classified in a variety of ways. It’s helpful to be familiar with these classifications in order to understand what type of research can be applied when and for what purpose.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research

The classification of research into quantitative and qualitative is based on the type of methodology involved.

Quantitative research is used to measure user behavior and helps answer the what, how much, and how many types of questions:

  • How many pages does a user navigate to during a visit?
  • With what frequency are users accessing the application on certain devices?
  • How many new and how many returning visitors does the application have per a time period?
  • How much time do users spend on a given page?
  • What is the distribution of keywords that users search for?
  • How many searches for a given keyword have been run in a period of time?
  • How many conversions occur on version A of the page, and how many on version B?

When done with a large enough sample of participants, quantitative research can deliver statistically significant results.

Qualitative research is done to describe user behavior and can be conducted with smaller samples of users. It results in descriptive outcomes that help understand the nuances of user contexts, behaviors, and interactions with technology. It seeks to understand the why of users’ actions:

  • Why are users spending more time on this page than on the other page?
  • Why are users converting better on version B of the page?
  • Why do people fail to complete a task?
  • Why are users frustrated by this feature?
  • Why do people need that feature?
  • Why do users have trouble understanding how to use the application?

While many people favor quantitative research, it is worth noting that some insights can only be found through qualitative research.

Quantitative and qualitative research work best when done in tandem. Both types of research can be employed at the onset of and throughout a project

Generative vs. Evaluative Research

The classification of research into generative and evaluative is based on the intention with which research is conducted.

Generative research is done to generate information about the users and ways in which they operate. It involves learning about who the users are, what they do, how they do it, why they do what they do in a particular way, what frustrates them, what makes them happy, in what contexts they take an action, etc.

Generative research helps define the problem under consideration. The bulk of generative research is done at the beginning of a project, but it can continue at a smaller scale throughout the project if the problem requires further clarification.

Evaluative research is done to assess something that exists, e.g., a design or an application. The types of questions that evaluative research can help answer include:

  • Is the design solving the problem for users?
  • How is the application performing?
  • Can users complete tasks easily?
  • Which features are a source of frustration?
  • Where and when are users unable to complete tasks correctly, and why?
  • What works great, what does not, and why?

Evaluative research can be conducted at any time throughout the project as long as there is something to evaluate. Early sketches, paper or digital prototypes, and implemented interfaces can all be subject to evaluative research.

Quantitative, qualitative, or a combination of these methods can be used in either generative or evaluative research.

Formative vs. Summative Research

Formative and summative research are types of evaluative research. The difference between them lies in when in a project they are conducted and for what purpose.

Formative research is typically done at the onset of a project or development cycle to assess the current state of a feature, a website, or an application. It helps identify problems to be solved (for example, pain points the users experience when interacting with an application).

Summative research is a process of evaluating the final or near-final state of a feature, a website, or an application at the end of a project or development cycle. It helps evaluate whether a design, feature, or application/website meets the user goals. If a project or development cycle started with formative research, the results of summative research can be compared to those of the formative research in order to measure success or progress.

Quantitative, qualitative, or a combination of methods can be used in either formative or summative research.

Attitudinal vs. Behavioral Research

Attitudinal and behavioral research derive classification from the nature of the obtained information.

Attitudinal research is about what people say. By learning what people say, we gain insight into what they think, feel, and want.

On the other hand, in behavioral research we watch what people do. By watching user actions, we can determine what they need to reach the desired outcomes, catch a glimpse of the mental models they bring into their interactions with technology, and understand what needs to be done to align the technology with users’ mental models.

Users are people, and people are not fully self-aware. Unconscious mental processes occur faster than conscious ones and as a result, people may make decisions and choices without fully knowing why. For that reason, simply listening to what people say (as we do in attitudinal research) may not be sufficient to understand requirements thoroughly. Watching users complete tasks is often necessary to understand what they need and expect from technology we’re building.

Coming Up Next: UX Research Methods

It is helpful to understand the various types of UX research available to us to fully appreciate the value of research in user-centered application design and development. In the next blog post, I will discuss the specific UX research methods we use at Caktus to inform requirements gathering for the projects we build.

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