The why and how of user research

The why and how of user research at Brightec 1
Is user research a waste of time and money? We explore this issue.

The integral role of user research

There are many horror stories of thousands of pounds spent on research and little to show for it.

With that in mind, we understand why prospective clients can be wary of us giving equal weight to the research phase of the development process. Why waste time and money on patchy results with limited user insights and shoddy deliverables?

However, despite its bad PR, we believe user research is an integral part of our development process.

Done well, it will ensure that your app is a favourite with your users and a success in its marketplace.

Still want proof? Well, let’s explain. In this article, we’ll work through each stage of the research process, why we carry it out and how it’s done.

A roadmap

‘In the digital age, creating meaningful design requires us to understand people who are different, anticipate what they will want to do, and provide them with the tools they need, exactly when they need them.’ Erika Hall from Just Enough Research.

My research heroes are Steven Portigal and Erika Hall.

Their books and teaching have been central to my roadmap for user research. They provide a structure that guides the process yet leaves room for insight and discovery. Their books Interviewing Users and Just Enough Research are highly recommended, and rightly so.

Here at Brightec we’ve been putting many of their ideas into practice and refining our research process. Below is a summary of the main stages of that process and why it’s important we carry out these stages.

The exploratory stage

The first phase of research is the exploratory stage of research where we go out into the ‘field’ and observe users in their context. The two methods used at this stage are contextual research and user interviews.

Contextual research

Contextual research is about going out and seeing the environment within which the user will be using your product. Ideally, this will involve observing the user with an early version of the product (or a similar competitor) in the environment in question.

If the product is hoping to formalise a pre-existing process then seeing that process in progress is extremely helpful.

It’s important to note the environment where they’ll be using the app, and tailor features and design of the app to that environment. For instance, it might be sunny and making the screen glare, there may or may not be WIFI which would impact hugely on loading times and there may be little or no connectivity at all.

They might be serving customers, listening to music or teaching children among other things while using the app. All these factors and many more will impact hugely on the usability.

There might also be ‘real world’ processes that compliment or inhibit the app. For example, a call centre worker might be using their company app while on the phone to a customer, or people might need documents such as utility bills close to hand to get the best out of the app.

All these factors impact on the design of the app. And failure to observe such factors can have a huge impact on retention and usability of the app.

‘Explore not only their behaviours but also the meaning behind those behaviours..’ Steve Portigal from Interviewing Users.

‘Interviewing can reveal new “frames” or models that flip the problem on its head. These new ways of looking at the problem are crucial to identifying new, innovative opportunities.’ Steve Portigal from Interviewing Users.

User interviews

At the core of the research method is the user interview.

The purpose of the interview is to understand the user’s habits and behaviour and also be able to empathise with them when designing products.

It’s a chance to get an idea of their technical capabilities and start to really understand the problems that they’re currently facing with an existing product or process.

It gives us a chance to further observe their behaviour but also understand why they’re doing things the way they’re currently doing them. It gives us many perspectives on the task at hand and opens up many avenues of possible innovation.

It feeds well into design meetings and future workshops with clients. Ideally, carry out the user interview in person and in context but Google Hangout or Skype are handy workarounds when logistics are tricky or users are on the move.

The design phase

We then move into the design phase. We’ll take a look at the insights that we’ve gained from the initial research phase and as a team we’ll discuss the greatest problems to overcome and the most important features of the product that could tackle these problems.

We’ll create user journeys and personas, then we carry out a design studio where we sketch ideas, brainstorm features and sketch paper prototypes.

Paper prototypes

The paper prototype allows us to carry out quick usability testing and refine the main features of the product.

Testing a prototype this early on allows us to find obvious problems and pitfalls of the design and start to improve it straight away.

Digital prototypes

Having concluded this testing phase, we can move the designs onto a full digital design and prototype.

These can be shared and tested remotely with clients and their user base.

Here at Brightec we use Invision app which allows for immediate and precise feedback on the designs and leads to a quick and clear sign off of the designs. These can then be handed over to our developers for the app or website to be built.


Once the app or website is up and running in the real world we can start to look and see what and why things are happening.

We will have Google Analytics in place to see where we have user drop-offs and where users encounter problems. Which conversions are working and which conversions aren’t. Coupled with further usability testing (see our previous blog post) we can keep refining the app for each release, constantly improving the user experience and your business output.

This article was originally written for Brightec by Ed Jenkins

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