LearnInclusive Design Series (3 of 4): The Importance of User Research


writes on October 14, 2020

I’ve spent most of my career working with startups, as the sole designer or alongside a handful of designers. I’ve never worked with a user researcher whose sole focus is on user interviews and usability tests. It can feel intimidating to do user research when it’s not your core expertise. But it’s the foundation for building an effective and inclusive product. So start somewhere; your users depend on it. Beyond the challenges of establishing true empathy, it’s also difficult to find participants to interview.

Recruiting Participants

Solicit a call for participants

You can do this in a few ways: post a message on social media, include it in an email newsletter, add it as a chat message on the company’s website, post it on Craigslist, or post an ad in your local classifieds or on social media. Ask questions or use a form to help select the people to interview. If you’re looking for users who fit in narrow parameters, recognize you may not stumble upon someone who qualifies for your study. Look for places where they might hang out, such as a message board, Meetup group, professional association, etc. If you’re looking to recruit children, recruit their parents to get their permission.

Email a list of users

If you’re working in-house, you have more information at your fingertips. You can segment a list of users to match the type of users you’re looking to interview. That could be folks who use a certain feature, have a certain subscription type, are located in a certain geographic area, have been active in the last month, and so on. So long as they’ve opted into receiving email notifications, you can send out an email to them (with their email addresses safely hidden in the BCC field) to ask if they’re interested in participating in a user interview.

Get word-of-mouth referrals internally

Ask your coworkers or client if they know of users who are willing to provide feedback. Reach out over email to schedule time to meet with them. The benefit of this strategy is these customers may be more likely to participate since they have an existing relationship with the company. On the other hand, since they’re already so chummy with your company they may not be as critical, and the products’ shortcomings may not be reflected in their feedback. Also, the audience may be quite insular and therefore it would be more beneficial to reach beyond the already established audience.

Ask friends and family

This should be the last option, as there are biases at play here. Ask your friends and family if they know of anyone. Perhaps you’re looking for people who love to bake bread. That’s something like 50% of people at this point, now that so many of us are stuck at home and picking up sourdough bread starters as a new hobby. Recognize the shortcomings of this approach, however. Your network may not be very diverse, so augment this research with other participants that stretch beyond your social bubble.

Use a paid service

User research agencies handle recruitment, user interviews, and usability testing. If you have the budget for it, these are very helpful. At the top tier, they provide a hands-on approach where they carefully recruit qualified candidates based on a detailed list of requirements and conduct actual live user interviews. At the lower tier, some services find participants based on a short list of requirements and then record a video of the participant interacting with your prototype.

User Research Ethics

When conducting user research, honesty and transparency are key. After all, you’re gaining a lot from getting feedback from people, and you want to make sure you’re holding up your end of the deal.

Get informed consent

Be upfront about how participants’ responses will be used. What type of product is it, and what is the name of the company? For ethical or personal reasons, the participant may not want their feedback to support a company they do not wish to support. Further, they may not want their name to be attached to their responses. Provide them with an option to respond anonymously if they wish.

Respect participants’ comfort level

Encourage participants to let you know their limits. If at any point they do not wish to answer a question, allow them to skip it. If your product involves research around health issues or topics that people feel shame about, you’ll want to be extra discrete, trustworthy, and transparent. Also, be mindful of how many researchers are watching the participant. You should only need 1 interviewer and 1-2 observers to take notes. Any more than that, and it’s intimidating for the participant.

Be respectful of their time

Set an expectation for how long the screening questions and user interview will take. One time I got selected for a research study and was told the screening questions would take only 15 minutes. As the questions piled on, I sensed we’d gone over time, but he assured me he was almost done with the screening. An hour later, the screening was done, and I realized how much time had elapsed. Unfortunately, the research agent went way over his promised time frame, and I was not even paid for this time since it wasn’t part of the actual user interview.

Provide compensation

Thank your participants with incentives. Ideally, this is in the form of money at a reasonable hourly rate. $60 per hour is a good minimum. For those in niche audiences or talking about sensitive topics, a higher rate is expected such as $100 per hour. Other forms of compensation are gift cards and discounts. If you don’t have a budget, be very appreciative and be careful to not take up more time than allotted. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s difficult to get approval for a user research budget, and that’s another issue entirely.

Safeguard the data

Be careful to not gather too much unnecessary data. If sensitive information such as salary isn’t really needed, then don’t ask for it. Be judicious about sharing the data, keep it private internally, and protect data that should be kept anonymous.

Be truthful about the next steps

Be truthful about the status of the project and the next steps. If the product is an early-stage prototype, don’t give the participant false hope that it’ll be available for them to use soon.

Hopefully, these have given you some ideas for how to conduct ethical user research when building inclusive products. In the next part of the Inclusive Design Series, I’ll discuss design ethics as a whole.

Other posts in the Inclusive Design Series:

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