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How to conduct user research by Joel Marsh

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Chapter 1. What Is User Research?

Ah, users. The sun in the UX solar system and the thorn in your side. One of the Sacred Laws of UX is “never blame the user,” even though—let’s be honest—sometimes it is really fucking tempting. However if you feel that way, you probably don’t understand your users well enough. Research is how we fix that.

Different People Will Say That User Research Happens at Different Stages in the Process

Some say you should do it first. Some say you make some drawings and do it then. Some say you do it after building a working product.

They are all right. There is never a bad time to do user research. Do it early, do it often. The important question isn’t when. It’s what. As in “what are you trying to learn about your users?”

There are two main types of information that you can get from research that involves people: subjective and objective.

Subjective Research

The word “subjective” means that it is an opinion, or a memory, or your impression of something. The feeling it gives you. The expectations it creates. Not a fact.

“What is your favorite color?”

“Do you trust this company?”

“Does my ass look fat in these pants?”

(i.e., There is no right answer.) To get subjective information you have to ask people questions.

Objective Research

The word “objective” means a fact. Something true. Something you can prove. Your opinion doesn’t change it, no matter how hard you wish.

“How long did you spend using our app?”

“Where did you find the link to our site?”

“What size are those pants?”

If people had perfect memories and never lied (especially to themselves), you could ask them about this stuff. If you find someone like that, let me know.

Objective data comes in the form of measurements and statistics. But, just because you can count something doesn’t make it objective or “data.”

The plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence.”

A wise person.

For example, if 102 people vote that something is good and 50 people vote that it’s bad, the only objective information you have is the number of people that voted. Whether it is “good” or “bad” is still a subjective opinion.

With me so far?

(If not, I will blame myself for explaining badly, not you for reading badly.)

Sample Size

As a general rule, more people makes for more reliable information, even if it is subjective. One opinion could be completely wrong. If a million people agree, it is a good representation of the crowd’s beliefs (but could still be false, objectively). So collect as much info as possible for your research.

Lots of subjective opinions can become... almost objective?! WTF

If you ask a crowd of people to guess the answer to something objective—like jelly beans in a jar—the average guess will often be pretty close to the real, objective, answer. But “wisdom of the crowd” about something subjective can also cause riots and get George W. Bush elected, so... yeah. Be careful. Subjective things can never be true; only more or less popular.

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