We’ve been drafting our user research principles recently and one idea to come out of the sessions was that:
User researchers shouldn’t fall back on a single research method just because we know it.
It got me thinking about my latest project at Co-op Digital and how interviewing people in a lab may have been easier for us but our insights wouldn’t have been anywhere near as valuable.
My point is: it’s easy to stick with a research method because it’s familiar or we feel confident using it, but different projects demand different approaches and user researchers must think carefully about choosing the most suitable one.
Matching the research approach to the project
I’ve been working on a ‘later life planning’ team, looking at how we can help people plan for the future.
We wanted to have conversations with people around:
- what planning for the future means in practice
- their hopes for the future
- any plans they have in place
But talking about wills, funerals, loss and what might happen to us in the future can be scary and emotional – so much so that it’s a conversation lots of people avoid having. I quickly realised that our research approach needed to be carefully and sensitively planned.
We use research labs regularly and they can be brilliant. They help the whole team witness the research first-hand and the controlled environment allows the researcher to focus on the interview rather than on logistics.
But labs can be quite clinical.
The white walls and huge two-way mirror don’t foster a comfortable, relaxed environment. I wanted the people we spoke to to be comfortable. This is something that needed to be more on their terms.
Researching in context
Apart from putting them at ease, the decision to visit people in their homes came from the desire to understand a wider context. What environment are people in when they have these conversations and make these decisions?
And home visits were great. Talking to someone surrounded by photos of their grandchildren, or with their pets bouncing around, helped us to understand what’s really important to them. By allowing us to see a little bit of how they live, our research participants gave us insights that we might not have got if we’d spoken over the phone or they’d talked to us in a lab.
For example, we saw:
- People struggling to find certain documents, despite them telling us that everything was in one place. This indicates that they might not have their plans as organised as they’d made out. We’re less likely to have found this out over the phone or in a lab.
- People’s expressions and body language while they had candid conversations with loved ones. One valuable insight was seeing the sense of urgency on a wife’s face when she spoke about needing to replace her husband’s expired life assurance plan. Her expression gave us an idea of what an important and worrying issue this was for her. Their body language show us how much importance each of them placed on different parts of their existing plan.
Seeing things first-hand was a good reminder that people’s lives are messy. Anything we design or build needs to consider this.
Challenges with timing and practicalities
It took a long time to plan and prepare for the home visits. The logistics of travelling, getting lost, finding somewhere to park and finding the right spot to put the GoPro so we could record the interview was sometimes tricky. And by the time we’d introduced ourselves, talked through consent, set up the GoPro, things felt quite rushed. Next time, I’ll allocate time for these things or chat over the phone before the interview to establish a relationship and cover the basics in advance.
It’s tricky to involve the whole team
I’ve found it’s easier to get the whole team involved when we’re speaking to people in the lab – it’s one place, one day. But we carried out home visits over 2 weeks making it more difficult to pin everyone down.
We discussed who we wanted to speak to and what we’d like to find out as a team beforehand. This then fed into the plan and discussion guide. Product manager Sophia Ridge and designer Matt Tyas were able to come to the various interviews but making sure the whole team heard the voice of the interviewee and got the same insight was difficult.
We all came together to watch the home visit videos and I asked everyone to take notes as they would in a lab setting. I’d hoped we’d sort the findings and uncover themes and insights together. But 2 videos in, people were pulled onto other work. Next time, I’ll take the team out of our working space and ask them to leave their laptops behind.
Research community, how do you do it?
We’d be interested to hear how and why you’ve chosen to step outside the lab for different projects, and whether you think you got more useful insight from it. Leave a comment below.