How to Understand Users?

What is user research?


Ah, users. The sun in the UX solar system and the thorn in our sides. One of the Sacred Laws of UX is “never blame the user” even though, let’s be honest, somtimes it is really tempting. However, if you feel that way, it is because you do not understand your users, so what is user research?

Different people will say that User Research happens at different stages in the process. Some say you do it first. Some say you make some drawings and do it then. Some say you do it after building a working product. They are all right. There is never a bad time to do user research. Do it early, do it often. The important question isn’t when. It’s what. As in: what are you trying to learn about your users?

There are two main types of information that you can get from research that involves people: subjective and objective.


Subjective Research

The word “subjective” means that it is an opinion, or a memory, or your impression of something. The feeling it gives you. The expectations it creates. Not a fact.

  • “What is your favorite color?”
  • “Do you trust this company?”
  • “Does my ass look fat in these pants?”
  • i.e. — There is no right answer.

To get subjective information you have to ask people questions.


Objective Research

The word “objective” means a fact. Something true. Something you can prove. Your opinion doesn’t change it, no matter how hard you wish.

  • “How long did you spend using our app?”
  • “Where did you find the link to our site?”
  • “How many people visited our website today?”

If people had perfect memories and never lied (especially to themselves) we could ask them about this stuff. If you find someone like that, let me know. Objective data comes in the form of measurements and statistics. But just because you can count something doesn’t make it objective.

For example: If 102 people say something is good and 50 people say it’s bad, the only objective information you have is the number of people that voted. Whether it is “good” or “bad” is still subjective. With me so far? (If not, I will blame myself for explaining badly, not you for reading badly.)


Sample Size

As a general rule, more people makes more reliable information, even if it is subjective. 1 opinion could be completely wrong. If a million people agree, it is a good representation of the crowd’s beliefs (but could still be false, objectively). So collect as much info as possible for your research. Lots of subjective info can become… almost objective?!

If you ask a lot of people to guess the answer to something objective — like jelly beans in a jar — the average guess will often be pretty close to the real, objective, answer. But the “wisdom of a crowd” about something subjective can also cause riots and get George W. Bush elected, so… yeah. Be careful.


How to ask people questions?


Often in UX, especially at the start of something new, you will need to get information from real people. So how do we ask people questions?


3 basic types of questions


  • Open Questions: “How would you describe me?” — This allows for a wide range of answers, and works well when you want all the feedback you can get.
  • Leading Questions: “What are my sexiest features?” — This narrows the answers to a certain type. My example assumes that I have some sexy qualities, which might not be true! Be careful: this type of question also excludes answers you might want to know!
  • Closed/Direct Questions: “Which is sexier, my elbows or my knees?” — This type of question offers a choice. Yes or no. This or that. But remember: if the options are stupid, the results will be stupid.

Some examples of subjective research


  • Interviews: Get somebody and ask them a set of questions, one-by-one.
  • Observation: Give people tasks or instructions and watch them use your design, without help. Afterward, you can ask them questions.
  • Focus Groups: Get a bunch of people in a room together and ask them to discuss your questions.Note: Confident people often persuade others in the group, and a few random people are an unreliable example of anything, which is why I would rather set myself on fire than do a focus group in real life.
  • Surveys: A form, which people answer on paper or online. These can genuinely feel anonymous, which is useful.
  • Card-Sorting: Each person gets a set of ideas or categories (on cards or post-its), which they sort into groups that make sense. After many people have done this it gives you an idea of how your menu should look. ProTip: don’t use your colleagues for this. Use normal users.
  • Google: It’s amazing how many useful opinions you can find online, for free, right now.
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