UX101: Complete Guide to In-Person User Research

In user experience, user research aims to uncover information about how a person or general group of people interact with a product and a brand as a whole.

If the product already exists and needs improvement, user research can:

  • Show designers how end users are already using the product;
  • Show designers where in the product flow users are having trouble completing tasks;
  • Uncover how well the product matches with user expectations and how well the product fits into the user’s workflow or task flow.

If a product doesn’t exist yet, research can still:

  • Help determine if the target market would benefit from the product idea;
  • Show how the current product market is lacking and where a new product could fill a real user need;
  • Show how this new product could be designed to be more useful than current products already in existence.

Basically, user research can uncover insights that designers can then use for intuitive new features that solve users’ real problems.

The benefits of doing user research outweigh the risks of not conducting any research at all. Without proper research into user behavior, it becomes difficult to design and build features that are truly intuitive and follow a user’s workflow and thought processes. Having to re-work such features because they’re not understandable or solving real problems is also a time-consuming and inefficient way to build digital products.

What: In-person observation and testing

Just like in scientific research, research in usability aims to answer a set of questions that the designer or design team deems important to their work. For instance, if the product already exists and designers are tasked with building new features, the team might want to conduct preliminary research with subjects who use the product in its current state. This would help the researchers determine how the proposed feature should be designed and implemented in a way that users would find, well, useful. A feature designed with user research data in mind would look and behave differently from one that was not – such a feature would most likely be more intuitive, encourage users to trust the product more, and potentially be very beneficial for the brand or company’s bottom line.

There are many ways to conduct user research, and they all involve recruiting or observing real end users of a product. This article addresses in-person user research, where designers are able to observe the end user firsthand. Contextual observation — which involves recruiting users and speaking with them face-to-face over the product — is one popular method of research. Usually these in-person sessions revolve around observation, or putting a product in front of an end user and observing their behavior as they interact with it and try to accomplish a task.

These in-person usability sessions can happen at any point in the product life cycle – whether it’s in the discovery phase for a concept for a product that has not launched yet, or incrementally improving a product or website that already exists but is not completely fulfilling user needs.

One thing to note is that these types of studies typically yield qualitative data rather than quantitative. That is, most of the information that comes out of such sessions is about how users feel about or interact with something, their thoughts toward the current way a product works, and information on their daily habits and patterns that are relevant to the product. Qualitative data gives deep insights into a user’s mind and how they think, behave, and feel. This can be great general information, but keep in mind that it will take a little more work to find trends or try to “quantify” those insights into data points or numbers.

Sometimes there may not yet be a product to put in front of an end user, but designers need some background information on user behavior, daily life, frustrations, and how they might want to use a product that would solve for some of those issues. Structured and unstructured user interviews can help with this. Interviewing users involves asking a series of questions to gather information on a user’s demographics, expected behaviors, and frustrations surrounding the workflow or task the designer is trying to make easier. They can reveal how people in general behave and how humans tend to solve problems (and how technology can sometimes be a hindrance rather than a help).

Finally, your results of an in-person usability session may vary depending on the environment in which it was conducted. Observing users in a predetermined, pre-planned environment such as a focus group lab or an office with a one-way mirror is a different experience than letting users interact and behave in their natural environments – that is, where the user would most likely use the product in question. Ethnographic research allows designers to observe users in environments such as their homes, offices, or other settings where users feel more at ease and can be themselves, and also might yield important contextual insights that can inform your product design.

Why: Voice of the user

A product that doesn’t cater to its end users won’t last very long, and user research can help products become more intuitive while helping product teams become more empathetic.

UX designers might be the only ones on their teams to spend significant amounts of time with actual end users. This facetime is important for understanding why users do the things they do, and how to put oneself in a user’s shoes, and empathize with a user’s pain points, especially when it comes to frustrating tasks that are not intuitive. It can also help designers advocate for users to product owners, developers, and other stakeholders who may not have a lot of interaction with end users themselves. The designer then effectively becomes the voice of the user in such meetings.

Why is in-person research so important when remote testing is also popular with companies that value user feedback? Everything from a user’s body language to tone of voice indicates how your product is working for them, if at all, and asking real-time follow up questions on their initial reactions will help researchers dig down to the real problem of why a product or feature isn’t as intuitive as it should be. For example, observing several users engaged in their daily habits might find that the application doesn’t actually match the user’s mental model of the same task they would accomplish without the app’s help.

Empathy is an important trait for UX designers, and the ability to empathize with users is key to building better experiences for them. In-person usability sessions help designers build empathy for users who previously were just numbers on a Google Analytics page or made-up persona names with stock photo faces. Observing a user get frustrated trying to complete a task, or listening to a user’s story about how a product made (or derailed) their day, helps designers understand what users go through in their daily lives and how their product can be designed to ease some of those frustrations and foster trust.

Behaviors and attitudes may differ among different user bases, so it’s important to keep accurate notes of body language, speech, reactions, and more in order to uncover underlying trends.

Observing users during research sessions can bring to light key details that are often overlooked by other development team members, such as:

  • Areas where the product is not intuitive or does not follow a workflow that a user would normally want to take;
  • Common behaviors, habits, or trends that users have in their daily lives that affect the way they use a product;
  • Wants and needs that users may normally be shy about expressing.

In short, research can bring to light areas and features that can help make a product easier to use.

Where and Who: Natural environments and representative users

When conducting user research, be sure to recruit people who represent the types of users currently using the product, website, or application. If testing a new hearing aid, for instance, it would be helpful to recruit users who have used hearing aids in the past or who have a hearing problem and a real need for such a product. This requirement narrows down the pool of research subjects.

When recruiting users, try asking a few preliminary demographic questions to narrow down your ideal research group. Be sure to know what answers you are looking for in order to choose the right participants – those who provide different answers can be saved for future sessions if you think you could use their input later. The importance of this preliminary screening will become obvious as the sessions start and designers start to gather results — there’s not much point in trying to draw useful conclusions from users who may not actually have an interest in or need for the product to begin with.

Be sure to include diversity of some way, shape, or form, whether it be economic, age, ethnicity, or something else. It can be tempting to just recruit users that you relate to or that are similar to yourself or your team in some way, and it might seem easy to stick to a specific demographic when recruiting rather than diversifying your test subjects. However, that typically doesn’t mean that you are recruiting with the product in mind and thinking about who the product is truly made for. Doing so, even unconsciously, can actually have a negative effect on real end users because you may be shutting out or ignoring demographics that you probably should be, and it may result in more work down the road to fix the issues.

Finally, when conducting in-person user research sessions, users should feel as comfortable as possible in the testing or research environment. This will ensure that their familiar behaviors and patterns come out, and they don’t feel staged or feel any pressure to act or perform a certain way. If a user typically uses a product in their home, it would be ideal to do the research session there at the home, or in an environment that mimics the home. The point is to try to get the user to behave the same way as if the researchers weren’t there.

Mimicking the natural environment as best as we can, gets us closer to more natural behaviors and lets us make assumptions that are much more accurate and reflect the larger population.

How: Creating a natural environment

Setting up a user research session is important to getting accurate results. Below are some steps to follow to prepare for in-person usability sessions:

  • Before anything, decide what the goals of the sessions will be. Are you exploring the usability of a new feature, or trying to see if customers can do basic functions on your website? Be sure to frame the goal in an unbiased way, for instance by saying “I’d like to find out if users can complete basic tasks on my website” rather than saying “I’d like to know how well-designed and beautiful my website appears for my customers.”
  • After setting a goal, start writing up tasks that the test subjects can accomplish during the session. Be sure to keep each task worded broadly and written in a neutral tone of voice – don’t give away the answer to test subjects and don’t introduce confirmation bias. Tasks like “Show me how you’d buy a pair of shoes” are better than “Navigate to the home page, then the women’s shoes section, find your favorite pair of shoes, and purchase them.” Be sure to let the test subjects know that it’s a good idea to speak their thoughts out loud while doing the tasks.
  • Write an interview script. Be sure to include some introductory language for when you first meet the test subjects, telling them who you are and what you are trying to accomplish with the usability session. Be sure to include notes about tone of voice – it’s important to make subjects feel comfortable so that they’ll open up to you later on, and a conversational tone of voice will help with that. Be sure to let them know that there are no right or wrong answers to any of the tasks they’re about to attempt – just that you are looking for their observations and reactions to what is on the screen. Another useful tip is to ask the subject’s permission to record the session – in some states, this language might be legally required. Recording and transcribing usability sessions is one way to ensure you don’t miss any important insights.

One way to optimize the time during an in-person usability session is to let the research subjects do most of the talking. Sit back and observe the user in action as they try to complete the task and speak their thoughts out loud. Everything from a user’s body language to their tone of voice is important to note. Testing products this way yields real, unbiased feedback that can inform design and functionality requirements.

These types of user sessions should take place in an environment that the test subject is most comfortable in, or the environment that the test subject would be in when using the product. This critical step can sometimes be difficult to accomplish, but it can give designers a good sense of the environmental challenges that users might have to overcome to accomplish something. For instance, users who are shopping for shoes on their laptops in a noisy and crowded café might have different behaviors than those doing so in their office cube at work while under the eye of their manager or supervisor, and a still different approach from those users doing the same tasks in the comfort of their own home.

If using more exploratory methods to try and get a general understanding of your user base, you may not actually have much to say or have much to instruct your subjects on what to do. Since the purpose of these sessions is to uncover general patterns and trends, be sure to let the user speak their thoughts and take the lead during the session, showing how they might accomplish something or talking in great length about their habits and frustrations. Be sure to ask questions that are more open-ended and let the user take the lead when answering. Here are some examples of open-ended questions:

  1. How does trying to accomplish this task make you feel?
  2. Show me how you would accomplish the following task. What are your thoughts on the process?
  3. On the task you just tried, what did you think about how you had to do that?
  4. Can you think of other apps or products that do this task?
  5. How often have you done this task in the past week?
  6. Could you see yourself using this application or completing this task in this application? If so, where? How?

If leading a more structured session, say user testing a specific product feature or site area, be sure to inform the user of that direction before the session starts. Be sure to set the user up to feel confident by giving them enough context about what they’re going to be asked – what the product is, where to find or navigate to it, and exactly what feature they’ll be testing. Then ask specific questions and instruct them to do specific things like complete a task or talk about how many times per week they look at this task. Of course, don’t tell a user how to do something, let them figure it out themselves.

When asking a series of questions in a more structured setting, be sure to “sandwich” harder questions between easier ones and be sure to follow a natural, conversational pace – even if the conversation gets off topic a little bit, that’s OK, but continue to ask questions that guide the user to uncover those behaviors and patterns that triggered this research in the first place.

Synthesizing data and detecting trends

What designers do after a usability session is just as important as what they do during them. Be sure to take notes of certain behaviors, body language, and reactions. This information helps detect trends among groups of subjects or many sessions conducted separately.

Below are some extra tips to consider when analyzing in-person research results:

  1. Firstly, think about setting aside a set of topics, behaviors, and user needs that the research team intends to explore before a user session even happens. After all sessions have completed, list out each topic and behavior and begin to organize the session notes under these different areas.
  2. After doing step 1, use affinity mapping to determine if any trends under those topics start to crop up. For instance, it might become apparent that people of a certain age group or handicap have trouble using the product when the notes are grouped by age ranges or disabilities or impairments.
  3. For structured research sessions, for instance when exploring the usability of a very specific feature, organize notes based on a hypothesis of what the team thought would happen, versus what actually happened when conducting the sessions. Similarly to step 2, identify trends and user types who were exhibiting similar behaviors.
  4. Don’t rule out outliers. Outliers, or users who exhibited behavior that was unique or not necessarily a trend, can be insightful and will give holistic results.
  5. Translate the trends and behaviors observed into problem stories. It’s easier to identify a UX solution when the issue is framed as a problem or frustration users are having so that the design team can get a head start on solving that problem. For instance, if people of a certain age group or handicap have trouble using the product, framing this behavior as a problem or issue (almost like writing a user story “as a user, I want to be able to hear other people talking to me without having trouble”) might prompt the design team to look into solutions such as accessibility testing and more inclusion of features that help those with handicaps.

Lastly, don’t rule out the potential for involving stakeholders in in-person usability research. Stakeholders may serve as subject matter experts and can help answer questions that arise during research, if users reference an unknown event or a specific detail only an SME would know about. Just be sure that stakeholders sitting in on usability sessions understand that talking during the session, giving hints to the user, or asking their own questions should not happen as this can affect the results of the study. Involving others also gives stakeholders a glimpse of what design research looks like and helps them buy into design activities to show that research is an important part of building great experiences.

Communicating with stakeholders

Stakeholders may want to see the results of in-person usability research, and it’s important to package the findings in a way that makes the results meaningful and impactful and gives specific action items on how to follow up and what to do next.

Research can also inform the designs themselves. When creating and presenting designs, backing design decisions with research is a powerful tool to get product designs through many critical eyes. For instance, if research sessions found that more users responded favorably to photographs of real people than photographs of nature scenes, the design part doesn’t seem so subjective anymore. Rather than going with what the development team thinks “looks nice,” the designers now have concrete evidence over what is more intuitive and can make real design decisions based off of that information.

As the person who conducted the research first hand, the researcher is best equipped to make recommendations based off of what they observed. Start with an overview of the product and the problem or issue being investigated. Then, briefly state how the research was conducted and note the main findings. Using direct quotes from the interview subjects to make a research presentation more impactful and lends a bit of humanity that will hopefully help stakeholders – who may not have regular interaction with their end users – empathize more with their customers.

Whether it be product owners, developers, analysts, or the client themselves, presenting user research is a great way to build empathy across the whole team. Research findings are also evergreen artifacts, so be sure to save the sessions’ findings and continue to build on them with regular follow-ups in order to track progress and continuing trends.

Future projects

Finally, always keep research findings and presentations for documentation purposes. In software teams especially, developers, analysts, marketers, and more can get a lot of useful information and insights from in-person research notes. Be sure to make it available to others on the team and be sure to refer back to the results every so often.

Research is ongoing as well, so be sure to schedule regular interviews or research sessions as needed. A design team with robust user research methodology can do anything!


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