Product Teams

Elements of a Great User Experience: Pt 1

Published May 12, 2016

We love good UX at Pendo. It’s pretty, practical, and oh-so-intuitive! That’s why we were excited to chat with our guest UX writer, Mauro Pellegrini, founder of the online usability services provider, Here’s his solid advice for user research basics.

#1. You are not your user

User experience is concerned with everything that affects users and their interaction with a product. Its goal is to design products that users want and need, and that are easy and enjoyable to use. To achieve this goal, the design should focus on the users first, before shaping the technology around it. This is called “user-centered design” and three important activities underpin it:

  • “know your user—because the user is not you”
  • “rely on data”
  • “iterate”

So, if we take that first point at face value—you are not your user—How do we get to deeply know our users?

Photo by Helloquence

#2. Do User Research

“User-centered design” is based on a deep understanding of the needs, behaviors, motivations, and abilities of users. “User research” consists of a set of activities that help uncover these characteristics. Good research prevents our own assumptions from taking over and provides data to better inform the design process.

You should use more than one research method and then “triangulate” the data. This balances each method out, minimizes bias, and provides richer and hopefully more genuine insights. For any of the methods employed, the research goals need to be clear and specific.

For example, imagine you are thinking about creating a mobile app to check the weather. Clear research goals could be: What is preventing users from being able to do what they want with the weather app(s) they currently use? When do they use the app? Which people use weather apps most often, and what distinguishes them and their behaviors? On the contrary, unclear research goals are: Do people care about the weather? Do people like the weather apps currently available in the App Store?

You can use three basic research methods: secondary research, interviews, and online surveys. (Part two of this post will discuss usability testing and analytics when discussing other elements of the user experience, such as information architecture and interaction design.)

#3. Review secondary research

Before you start doing new research, it’s best to review existing research first. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Secondary research involves using information that others have gathered through primary research. This information can be taken from a range of places. In the case of an existing product, it could be internal data such as databases, sale reports, previous surveys, in-app polls and user analytics. More generally, it is external data, which is published by research organizations and companies (such as Pew Research, Forrester, Gartner, and Nielsen), or provided by a wide range of media sources. The information may require payment for access, or may be freely available. If you don’t want to pay for the research companies’ reports, look online for articles that summarize key parts of the reports.

Secondary research is a good starting point and creates a landscape for subsequent primary research, but it has its limitations. The information might only cover broad areas of inquiry and might not be exactly related to your research goals. It might also be of suspect quality or outdated.

#4. Conduct Interviews

If you are creating a new product or service, find out what is preventing people from being able to do what they want with the tools they currently have. Gather context, understand the current workflow, and find opportunities. Ask a lot of “why” questions to examine the root cause of the problem(s). And remember, the focus is on the needs and pain points, and not on what the user likes or wants.

In-Person Interviews

In-person interviews allow you to better capture verbal and nonverbal cues such as emotions and body language. However, nonverbal behavior can be misinterpreted. It can also be lost in the subsequent analysis phase if not properly reported during the interview.

Photo by Tim Gouw

Some tips for successful interviews:

Minimize discomfort. Describe to the participant the intent of the interview and your role. Explain why you will take notes (or record) and how you will compile the results. Ensure that the participants understand that you are not testing their abilities and that there are no right or wrong answers. In the event of an agreed reward, give it to the participant up front.

Conversation. Prepare a list of questions as a guide but don’t be too strict about it. This will make the interview sound more like a conversation and will allow you to discover new insights. Keep a friendly tone to create a more engaging environment.

Record. Select a recording method (e.g. written notes or digital sound recorder). If you are conducting the interview alone, a sound recorder will allow you to better focus on the conversation without losing any important information.

Minimize bias. Unfortunately, asking leading or biased questions is very easy to do. Don’t ask the participants if they like or dislike something. It’s an invitation for them to tell you what they think you want to hear. For instance, in reference to the weather app mentioned above (and its user research goals), it’s preferable to ask something along the lines of: “In which situations do you check your weather app? Why? What are you trying to get done / know?” rather than: “Do you check your weather app when you feel cold?”.

Listen. After the question, listen and minimize interruptions. Give the participants time to qualify their statements or provide additional insights. 

Try it. Conduct at least one trial run of the interview with either a friend, colleague, or an additional participant.

#5. Online Surveys

Online surveys allow you to reach a larger number of participants. Before you start, you need to have a clear understanding of what you want to find out from the survey. The questions must cover your objectives, while the answers need to provide insights that are actionable and testable.
The objectives, as well as the recruitment method, are generally different in the event of an existing product/service, or a new one.

  • Existing product or service: Reach your users by email or intercepting them while they are interacting with your application. The questions can be more detailed and refer to specific aspects or features.
  • New product: Find survey participants through panels. The objectives are still to understand the needs, behaviors, and motivations of potential users.
Photo by Benjamin Child

Regardless of whether you are trying to uncover insights for a new or existing product, there are several recommendations you can follow to create effective surveys:

Tone. Use a conversational tone to make the survey more engaging. Write a quick intro to explain the survey to the participants. Don’t forget to thank them at the end.

Easy. Try to have a maximum of 10 questions (less in the case of intercepted users), including a mix of open and closed-ended questions. Limit the number of open-ended questions to 30% of the total.

Focus. Don’t ask the users what they would like to see in the product – users are bad designers. Your goal is to uncover pain points and behaviors. Avoid leading questions to minimize bias.

Logic. Group similar questions together, order them logically, and make them easy to understand. Avoid questions with two concepts. Use balanced rating scales with 5 points and always add a neutral – “don’t know” – option.

Panels. If you want to target a specific segment of potential users, use a prequalification question. It allows you to pre-screen respondents based on your requirements and eliminates those who don’t qualify.

A prequalification question shouldn’t be a “yes/no” type of question, and should include many decoy answer choices to better screen out respondents (and also avoid possible speeders).

Try it. Take great care to ensure that the survey works as intended before it’s delivered. Test it with a few friends or colleagues first and then run a small pilot.

The lack of user-centered design of products negatively affects people every day; it leads to frustration and confusion. Understanding your users, their pain points, and what really makes them tick is key to both building new products and improving existing ones. Properly conducted user research provides this fundamental data and it compels one to think about the overall product from a user-first standpoint. Therefore, the base of user-centered design starts with good user research.

Our guest writer, Mauro Pellegrini, is an Entrepreneur, User Experience Consultant, Structural Engineer and Traveler.

He graduated in 2004 and worked for 10 years as a Structural Engineer in Ireland, Dubai and Singapore. In 2014 he studied User Experience Engineering at the Harvard Extension School.

leendii is a UX consultancy that follows lean principles and delivers its services online. The company aims to eliminate anything that is redundant and interposes between the client’s need and the solution. The focus is on UX techniques and processes that need less human effort, less space, less time, less costs and that work remotely. Follow them on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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