The so-called discovery phase is usually the beginning phase of a project (see all phases of a project here). You typically consider new ideas and opportunities. Your goal here is to discover the most important and often unmet needs that users have with the products and services around them.
It allows you and your team to find out where the gaps are in the way existing products solve users’ problems and the key to success here is to study the user of your future product.
Attitude vs. behaviour
Remember to combine methods that investigate attitudes and methods that focus on behavior. What people tell you and what people do are quite often to different things. Users often will tell you what they think you want to hear. Asking them to show you a certain workflow often gives more insights than asking about it. The purpose of attitudinal research is to understand or measure people’s stated beliefs. The purpose of behavioral research is to observe and uncover the user behavior.
Some types of exploratory research happen in the natural context. That means that we study the user in the environment, where the behavior in questions actually happens. The goal to study users in their context is to minimize interference from the study in order to understand behavior or attitudes as close to reality as possible. This provides greater validity but less control.
THE 6 RESEARCH METHODS
1. Focus groups
Focus groups allow participants to interact and converse with others while discussing a topic and gathering in-depth information about a group’s actions, thoughts, and feelings. The brainstorming leads to people building on each other’s ideas, which allow a group to really dig into an idea or issue. This allows you to get feedback from a larger group in short time. A focus group should have between 6-12 participants. If the group is bigger you should consider breaking it up.
A focus group involves a moderator asking a group of people about their behaviors, preferences, attitudes, and experiences on a topic or item of interest. To get the best results you should prepare a set of questions that you are interested in answering. Sometimes it helps to ask participants to write down their answers on post-its and share them afterward.
A survey is a quantitative method that consists of a series of questions answered by the target audience. Responses are open-ended or multiple choice and are typically about preferences, attitudes, and experiences on a topic or item of interest. A survey can be conducted at any time during the lifecycle of a product. As a research method, surveys allow us to count or quantify concepts.
While estimates of customer attitudes will be more precise with larger sample sizes, the results you get from say, 30 users are surprisingly stable. Ask clear questions, don’t ask leading questions and try not to influence the participants in any way.
There are many online tools you can use for surveys. I personally use typeform.com.
3. One-to-one interviews
1:1 interviews are conducted by asking participants a series of questions and taking notes of their feedback while facilitating further discussion accordingly. Interviews can provide in-depth details about a user’s actions, thoughts, and feelings. The questions should be prepared in advance and give you general guidelines of what you are interested in finding out. Be prepared to go a little off piste if the conversation is heading in an interesting direction. Just make sure to cover all the areas you need to. In your research plan for each question, try to describe also why you are asking it.
Where possible it is generally best to interview people in their natural environment, be that in their home, place of work or elsewhere. Doing the interview this way can yield greater insight into how the environment the user is in will affect how they currently use an existing system or will use what you are designing. Put simply it gives your user research context.
4. Contextual inquiries
Contextual inquiries allow collecting information about the context of use, where users are observed and questioned while they work in their own environments (read also about ethnographic research here and here). It’s not simply an interview, and it’s not simply an observation. It involves observing people performing their tasks and having them talk about what they are doing while they are doing it. This technique is generally used at the beginning of the design process and is good for getting rich information about work practices, the social, technical, and physical environments, and user tools.
The interviewer will take notes, and possibly use audio and/or video recording to capture key moments in the process. Contextual inquiries are very helpful to understand shortcuts, frustrations, workarounds of users. The fact that the context is taken into consideration also is a very important aspect of this type of research.
Observational research, just as contextual inquiry takes context into consideration and typically happens in the users’ home, workplace, or natural environment and not in a lab or controlled setting. The user is asked to go about his/her daily business ignoring the observer altogether. Usually, the observed person knows the research goals of the observer.
As an observer, your main goal is to observe, to keep the interaction with the participant to a minimum and to play a neutral role as much as possible. This approach is very useful and is usually used it in addition to other methods (for example 1:1 interviews).
Be aware of the Hawthorne effect when observing. Read more about it and other research pitfalls here.
6. Design charette
A design charrette is a short, collaborative workshop during which members of a team quickly collaborate and sketch designs to explore and share a broad diversity of design ideas. This can be done with as many as 20 people and as few as 2. Give everyone a few sheets of plain paper and a pen. Write a goal or a design challenge on a whiteboard and let them sketch their ideas.