The Transformative Power of User Research

Author Date November 15, 2022 Read 8 min read

Shifting the perspective from the business to the customer.

Close up ux developer and ui designer brainstorming

While most companies routinely conduct user research, few are able to surface insights that shift the conversation from the business to the customer in a convincing way. There is a whole host of practices that can be applied before, during, and after user research that can help enable this shift and help generate customer-centered solutions. These practices include establishing a clear understanding of the customer problems as well as applying sound study planning and execution with an eye to maintaining a focus on the customer.

A clear understanding of the customer problem, often called the problem definition, is key to enabling this shift. Problem definition is important to all aspects of research projects, large and small, from the overall research process to the tactics of how interviews are conducted, as well as all aspects of the business. The customer perspective gradually emerges in the research planning phase, in the form of focus areas and customer profiles, and becomes more apparent during interviews as insights about customer problems are surfaced. The customer perspective then begins to drive the structure of interviews, debriefs, and ultimately the research report.

A solution seeking a problem to solve is almost never a good thing.

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A shift in perspective helps businesses become more customer-centered

While this shift from the business to the customer perspective is often disruptive, it is key to helping the business become more customer-centered. Customer experience for many industries is becoming a competitive differentiator and for commoditized industries, such as financial services, sometimes the only competitive differentiator.

Problem definition is key to building the right solutions the first time around

As stated in the introduction, researchers must have a clear understanding of the customer problem (i.e. root cause) expressed in the customer’s language and in the categories that make sense to them before solutions can be proposed. Otherwise, they run the risk of proposing solutions that do not solve customer problems. Sound problem definition is the key to building the right customer solutions the first time around. Solutions derived from non-existent or ill-defined problems tend to spawn multiple failed solutions because subsequent solutions are likely derived from previously failed solutions.

Much of the groundwork for uncovering the root of customer problems and shifting the perspective to the customer happens before research even begins. Many of the working documents delivered in this phase (e.g. discussion guide) are designed to frame up the research activities with a focus on the customer.

Before Research Begins

Planning Phase

The planning phase is the first opportunity for business stakeholders and experience consultants to come together and produce a strategic plan that reflects both the needs of the business and the customer. The planning phase is where customer data, such as target customer profiles and user scenarios, are first introduced into the conversation.

The documents produced in this phase are:

1. Research Proposal
2. Recruiting Screener
3. Discussion Guide

Note: Many documents are dependent upon previous documents in the flow.

Research Proposal

The research proposal helps the client and consultant arrive at a mutual understanding of the purpose and goals of the research. From there the purpose and goals are used to synthesize business and experience requirements into research objectives of the study as well as provide key inputs to the recruiting screener, the schedule, and the discussion guide.

Recruiting Screener

The recruiting screener translates the target customer profile (i.e. attitudes, behaviors, demographics) from the research proposal into concrete and actionable criteria that enables recruiters to effectively screen participants for the interviews. The recruiting screener specifies, in unambiguous terms in the form of quotas and questionnaires, the sample of participants who should be selected to participate in the study.

Discussion Guide

Drawing on the focus areas and research methodology provided by the research proposal, the discussion guide helps move the conversation from customer profiles and high-level objectives to an understanding of what the participant wants to accomplish with the prototype that is being tested. The discussion guide provides an open-ended format that gives the study moderator the flexibility to follow the participant’s conversation and, in doing so, shed light on the participant’s thoughts and actions rather than solely the prototype that is being tested.

Use a broad demographic criterion to recruit participants. It may be tempting to use a narrow criterion: however, with such a small sample of participants, this can be ineffective and result in costly delays. Consider paying incentive amounts that are consistent with the research participant’s financial position, including their income and net worth. Make sure the incentive amount is enough to motivate the participant to agree to participate in the study.

projekt202 Recruiting Tips

Prototype Readiness Can Make or Break a Research Study

The prototype communicates the design that needs to be evaluated by participants. Developing a quality prototype that has been vetted by the business stakeholders and the experience consultants is integral to surfacing insights that are relevant to the research focus areas. If the prototype loses credibility in the participant’s eyes, the entire study could be at risk.

The prototype should be developed in parallel and closely aligned with the discussion guide. The prototype should support the scenarios in the discussion guide as well as be complete, internally consistent, and free of preventable errors. In order to allow sufficient time for vetting, the client should provide working prototypes a significant time in advance of the start of interviews. The prototype should support the primary path that is anticipated that the user will take based on the scenarios in the discussion guide as well as a secondary path for each scenario.

projekt202 Prototype Readiness Checklist

  • Make sure the prototype supports the scenarios listed in the study discussion guide, more specifically, the primary and, ideally, the secondary paths the user would likely take to accomplish the stated goal.
  • Make sure that balances and payment amounts on summary pages and detail pages for the same accounts match.
  • Make sure the information in the prototype is consistent with what users recruited for that study would expect. For example, if your users
  • typically earn an income that is less than $50K, presenting a bank prototype with a checking account balance of $150K might seem offputting.
  • Make sure the presentation matches the statement type. For example, a mortgage statement should have amounts for interest and principal, and not the same fields you would see on, say, a credit card account.
  • If more than one concept is being tested, ensure that there is enough difference between the prototypes that you can elicit sufficient feedback on the second prototype in the sequence.

During Research

Interviews and Observation

Interviews and observation are typically where the shift from the business perspective to the customer perspective becomes readily apparent. At every opportunity, the researcher follows the user’s conversation, not the structure introduced by the system, prototype, or research agenda. This shift to the customer perspective can, at times, be confusing and disorienting for observers who have spent a lot of time focused on business requirements or system or prototype design.

Interview Schedule

In keeping with sound study planning, the interview schedule should accommodate the time needed to correct and refine prototypes and discussion guides as well as to analyze data and conduct debriefs with the observer team. Researchers, designers, observers, and administrators must work together to make sure revisions to the prototype and the discussion guide happen early in the interview schedule.

As illustrated by the following example, there is a significant time reserved at the beginning of the interviews for refinement of the prototype and the discussion guide as well as for analysis and debriefs:

Roles and Responsibilities

In keeping with sound study planning, clearly defined roles and responsibilities must be established in order that interviews and debriefs happen in a timely manner and that stakeholders are made aware of key insights as they emerge.

User research is more than what meets the eye

There is a lot of behind-the-scenes collaboration during interviews, which is not always apparent to the casual observer.

Observer Participation

Scheduling dedicated time for observers to participate in the interviews and the debriefs is essential to ensuring that observers become familiar with the key takeaways and, in doing so, begin to shift their perspective toward the customer. It also ensures that by the time the research report is published, the findings do not come as a complete surprise to them. Without this participation, it can make the goal of shifting the perspective to the customer is nearly impossible to achieve.

The user often sees the experience holistically and not according to the boundaries introduced by systems or project scope.

Observer Guidelines

Here is a list of observer guidelines to consider:

This phase is the culmination of this layering of insights that are generated over the course of the interviews. User insights progressively grow and solidify, like a “snowball effect.” Observations translate into quick takeaways, takeaways into insights, and insights into findings and recommendations. This gradual layering of insights helps observers buy in and ultimately internalize the findings when they are presented in the final report.

After Research Ends

Final Debrief & Analysis

The final debrief is the time to gather final thoughts and observations as well as tie together any themes that emerged during the post-interview debriefs. At this point, observers should be well acquainted with the research takeaways and have, in all likelihood, already embraced the customer-centered thinking introduced by the experience consultants. After the final debrief, experience consultants will conduct an independent analysis of the interview data and prepare the final report.

Research Report

The research report is the final deliverable. This is where the customer problems (or findings) uncovered during the research become front and center and communicating a clear understanding of the problem is essential. This report represents a translation of the conversations and observations gathered during the interviews into the themes, user categories, and supporting quotes and videos. This research report is not only about the “what” users did or said during the interviews but “why” users thought or acted a certain way. Ideally, the report will include as much qualitative data as necessary to substantiate the findings and, to that end, more user quotes and videos than numerical or statistical data.

Data analysis is an evolving, and in some respects, bottom-up activity. Therefore, the report will likely be organized by categories that emerged from the analysis of the user data, not the categories that were initially proposed in the discussion guide.

Findings that Likely Lack Problem Definition

Here are some examples of research findings that likely lack problem definition. While these findings are not by themselves a problem, they suggest that the findings are solutions-based and likely not based on a clear understanding of the customer problem.

This shift toward customer-centered thinking is essential to making customer experience a competitive differentiator for companies. There are several research best practices discussed in this whitepaper that help enable this much-needed shift. These practices include everything from following the participant’s conversation during interviews to generating research findings that reflect a clear understanding of the customer problem. Most important, by engaging in user research, clients can begin to internalize the customer-centered thinking and, ultimately, influence many other activities throughout the company—everything from engineering, product management, and product marketing.


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