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[ARTICLE] Optimize Application Design with UX Research

Designing & optimizing software to increase employee productivity & efficiency or customer experience is all about providing the best user experience possible. World-class digital experiences require user-centric design, where the needs & behaviors of those most likely to use the technology are incorporated into the design & development process. The two critical components of the UX concept are user experience design (UXD) and user experience research (UXR).

UXD employs rapid iteration concepts such as design thinking to design interfaces and other aspects of technology with empathy & flexibility. UXR is a powerful practice for informing and shaping designs & prototypes that build for the target user, achieved by researching to understand potential users’ requirements for the application & how they would preferably operate within. UXR is a hands-on approach to understanding what potential users of the software need to efficiently complete tasks & how to provide a seamless & memorable digital experience for the user. The essence of UXR is collecting data & synthesizing it to improve usability. 

Research plays a vital role in enriching the design process by incorporating user context, which increases the chances of the technology being able to solve a significant problem. A UX approach that includes research saves targeted end-users the headache of a non-user-friendly technology and protects effectiveness while limiting downtime & implementation headaches. 

User Experience Research & Design Flow

Your design thinking framework should feature UXR as the leading activity during the understanding phase (empathize & define) and the materialize phase (test). The graphic below shows the design cycle, from the birth of a new product to continuous improvement through redesign & reiteration. The understanding phase focuses on formative or exploratory research to surface pain points. The design testing portion entails more summative research to test a design prototype’s usability & intuitiveness. 

Some testing designs incorporate the concept of “user delight” to surface how potential users of a technology subjectively perceive or feel about the prototype. UXR can also be used pre-design cycle to reveal deep-seated needs and make concept recommendations for new products which have not previously been conceptualized. To fully understand the value of UXR, it is helpful to be aware of the importance of research methods & the broad types of UXR designs.

Research methods fall into two major categories, quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative methods are heavy on numerical output and are valid for answering questions about the degree to which something occurs (e.g., surveys & statistics). Qualitative methods are heavy on text & observational data. These are suited to answering the ‘why; questions and gleaning rich data about a small sample of respondents’ particular experiences. While most methods used in UXR are qualitative, quantitative methods do come into play also. These methods fit in a research design continuum of discovery, formative and summative research designs. 

Types of UXR Designs

Discovery Research

This method delves deeper into discovering the hidden pain-points of users. Discovery research is a pathfinding process that helps receive information to conceptualize a new digital experience. Traditionally his is conducted before starting the design cycle to inform the development team what software to design or technology to develop & implement for optimal improvements to customer or employee experience. 

Methods for discovery research include ethnographic methods such as immersive observation, contextual inquiry, workshops, and semi-structured interviews. 

Ethnographic Observation entails extensive and detailed observation of a workflow and daily user behavior. Ethnographic research might spend several hours with a single respondent to understand the broader context of the issues they need to solve. While ethnographic methods are time-intensive, they can yield rich data on a current workflow’s entire context and pay substantial dividends in designing correctly to solve the exact issues users face. 

Contextual Inquiry is a modified form of ethnographic research, focussing on understanding the context and process of a specific workflow. The researcher observes a process from start to finish, encouraging input from the respondent to explain each step until completed. This gives the designer a full overview of how users are interacting and wanting to utilize the tool. Contextual inquiry is more focused and less time-consuming than traditional ethnography and yields targeted yet rich insights about current workflows and processes. 

Workshops are similar to focus groups in that they elicit data from a group but are more participatory than focus groups & interviews. The format varies and can include brainstorming, journey mapping, and subject matter expert (SME) panels. Usually, the workshop facilitator frames the topic to explore and breaks the participants into small working groups for an immersive activity related to the subject matter, with a summary presented to larger groups at the end of the session.

Semi-structured interviews are interviews with a pre-determined set of questions with open-ended answers by the respondent. This method is less time-consuming than the ethnographic methods or workshops but still yields rich data about respondents’ specific experiences. Though it is not feasible to attain large enough sample sizes for robust statistical analysis, semi-structured interviews can produce more precise data than surveys because respondents are not limited to a limited set of answer choices. It is less likely the respondent will respond that it is the “best fit” but still a poor reflection of the reality as may sometimes happen in surveys.

While discovery research is not an ideal fit for Agile product design and development cycles, it can be a substantial value add in strategy and direction when conducted ahead of current iterations or program increments (PI). Think of discovery research teams as the scouts making maps that give Agile teams the best way forward.

Exploratory/Formative Research: Formative research designs are most useful in understanding (empathize and define) the design thinking process phase at the beginning of the design or redesign process. A UXR team typically conducts formative research when a broad idea of new technology or redesign has been conceptualized, perhaps through discovery research. 

Formative research can help optimize the design of a technology concept and can, in some cases, build a case for pivoting to something else if the idea does not demonstrate the potential to meet actual user needs. Unlike discovery research, formative research can fit reasonably well into Agile product cycles such as iterations or PIs.

Methods conducive to formative research include contextual inquiry, semi-structured interviews, and workshops. Ethnographic research designs to work in the exploratory analysis but would need modification from traditional ethnographic designs. In some instances, a System Usability Scale (SUS) may be used to assess a current application’s usability the new application is meant to replace. Still, this method is more commonly used in summative research.

Formative research designs are beneficial for assessing user needs and pain points related to a technology concept and can be used quickly.

Summative Research: Summative research designs are most useful in the materialize (test) phase of the design cycle. Summative research is used to evaluate how usable, intuitive, and desirable a technology or product is and is complementary to formative research. This phase of UXR is beneficial in reiterating a prototype to be more usable and better meet user needs.

Methods used in summative research include usability testing, A/B testing, heuristic evaluations, SME panels SUS, and web analytics.

Usability testing is when a researcher(s) asks a test user to perform a series of tasks and to “think aloud,” describing the process as it is occurring. It is a complementary method to contextual inquiry; where the former way fleshes out solid points and pain points in a current application or process, the latter does so for a new prototype. While the researcher describes the purpose of the exercise and outlines what tasks are to be performed, he or she politely minimizes the respondent’s help. This technique is essential for surfacing usability problems or ambiguity in the user interface (UI). In some cases, semi-structured interview questions about perceptions may be embedded in the usability test task scenarios. In some instances, tasks may be timed from start to completion.

A/B testing is a type of usability testing where respondents can compare two different versions of a webpage. This method is advantageous in a redesign process. In addition to typical variables in a usability test, an A/B test can measure the difference in time on task, sales, and hover time without clicking.

A heuristic evaluation is where an expert uses “rules of thumb” on an established heuristic to assess an application or web page’s usability. While this method yields a concise evaluation from an expert, it is somewhat more subjective than other methods. It is vital to ensure that the right expert is consulted and that the process is a strong fit for the overall research design.

SME panels are modified focus groups in which SME’s review a prototype with a researcher and give feedback based on their impressions. This method has less setup time than a usability test. It can be employed when the prototype is still in the wireframe stage and not functional to the minimum viable product (MVP) level. 

SME panels can reveal hidden but vital insights about a prototype gel with current user needs, workflows, and conceptual models of what is needed. A limitation of SME panels is that SMEs’ biases in favor of an existing application or technology may color their perceptions of the prototype. SME’s may focus on what they are comfortable with and what they want, rather than on underlying needs. Fixation on the status quo or superficial wants may limit innovation in optimally meeting the underlying conditions.

These qualitative methods complement quantitative methods such as SUS and web analytics. SUS is a validated metric with five positive UX attributes and five negative UX attributes on a Likert scale. It does not provide the depth of insight that qualitative UXR methods do, but it can be administered across a much larger sample and thus is generalizable. SUS can be rapidly deployed to yield a snapshot of people’s perceptions of a web page’s usability or application. 

Web analytics uses the AI/ML power of an analytics platform such as SQL or Google Analytics to discover usage patterns in a live platform or application. Examples of UX insights that may be gleaned from analytics include the number of unique visitors, time on screens, and drop-off frequency and location.

Summative research approaches are vital for testing technology prototypes and deployments to assess usability and desirability.

The graphic below shows the benefits of formative and summative research. And where in the design and development process, these techniques are most productively employed.

Building the Right Thing with UX Research

Deep Knowledge about People – UX researchers are trained to be good listeners and observers. They obtain in-depth knowledge about people, what they do, and what they need professionally. Whether they are trained in research methods through UXR training programs or while obtaining advanced social science degrees, UX researchers have thorough training in highly effective research methods. Experienced UX researchers can translate UXR data into insights that drive high-impact design concepts and decisions.

Design Integration – Researchers can integrate with design teams and adapt the research-design-research/test process to an agile design cycle. Designers may assist with research sessions to understand the process and gain insights from users. Researchers can help with brainstorming activities, workshops, journey maps, and other design thinking exercises.

Adaptability in Agile Environments – Integrating UX researchers into agile teams of designers and developers allows for rapid and flexible prototype iteration and refinement. UXR ensures that designs meet actual user needs and minimizes rework.

Meeting Users Where They Are – Integrating UXR in the design and development processes ensures that digital experiences are delivered to users where they are. It helps carry users along in the innovation journey rather than putting them in unfamiliar or uncomfortable territory.

Overall, UXR empowers digital innovation while meeting actual user needs in a highly usable and relatable manner. It’s a rapidly growing and transformational area in the technology landscape for start-ups, flagship tech companies, and legacy enterprises.

Radiant Digital helps organizations check all the boxes in enterprise software design with competitive UX Research services. We focus on research that guides a winning corporate strategy in the new digital economy.

This article was a shortened version of Radiant Digital’s Using UX Research to Optimize Software. Connect with Radiant for customized UX Research plans, or register for our Federal Digital Transformation Conference next Month (April 22) & hear from their CEO Shankar Rachakonda who will be a keynote speaker presenting on “Tactical view of digital transformation with CX/UX as a starting point.”

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