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How to do user research on a shoestring

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Services and products, User research

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User research is the bedrock of digital transformation, and without it we have no hope of developing great products and services. Ideally your team has a dedicated user researcher, you can access laboratory facilities when you want, and you have a whole range of tools and techniques at your disposal. When the Department of Health first redeveloped its intranet last year, the new site was built on extensive user research.

We are now undertaking further development to ensure the intranet continuously improves, but are more resource constrained than for last year’s overhaul. Over the last couple of weeks I have discovered that lack of budget needn’t be a blocker. Using so-called guerilla techniques, you can get invaluable insights on a shoestring budget.

We have been thinking about how to meet our primary goal for the intranet, that users can find everything they need and access the services they want. Unpacking this requires us to understand: what the most popular information or services are, how easy they are to find, and whether the content meets the specific need. Following a recommendation from a developer on our project I've been reading Undercover UX, a guide to user experience design on a budget. That, along with expert advice and help from the team, gave us enough to get started.

  1. Brainstorm. First we sat down as a team to write out as many needs as we could think of, thinking as broadly as possible. This exercise needn’t take long, and required no more than sticky notes, pens and a wall. As employees of the department, the team are all users too.
  2. Validate and prioritise. Next we cross-referenced our hypothesised needs against search data and site traffic. Some interesting patterns were revealed, for instance the way the term ‘hospitality’ drops out of search data as spending controls were brought in, or that many users use in-site search to try and find BBC News. Some of the needs were sufficiently well-understood to be specific, like finding the wifi password for the building, while others were vague and will require more work. For instance searches for ‘performance management’ are very frequent but do not reveal precisely what information is sought. You can view our list of around twenty top needs here. I’d be a little surprised if they were radically different to every other intranet in the world, but if you disagree let me know.
  3. Set up a “pop-up” user research lab. We then conducted a series of 1-1 interviews with users, while an observer took notes. To set up the lab, we found a space in the office, developed a script around a few key tasks that we wanted to observe the users performing, and recorded the sessions using Quicktime screen record which is installed as standard on a Mac. It’s the first time I’ve done this, and watching a user try to complete a task only to hear them exclaim of a page “I just have no idea what this is telling me” is both chastening and highly motivating.

Over the course of a morning we got conclusive evidence on content that was or wasn’t meeting needs, as well as insights into users’ search and navigation habits.

I realise the process described above is not perfect, but it is important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. When users are on your doorstep, there really is no excuse not to understand their needs.

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  1. Comment by Benji Portwin posted on

    Great blog piece!