Skinning Cats: A New Take on Old UX Research

Jun 24

They say there’s more than one way to skin a cat – and that’s true of UX research as much as anything else. Especially if the “cat” is everything you need to know in order to design a uniquely user-centered experience.


The Fat Cat: Taking Your Time and Getting All the Milk

Our traditional approach to user research has been honed and refined over several years to tease out the major needs, goals, and behaviors of end users, as well as to gain a broad and deep understanding of stakeholders’ goals, visions, and success metrics. It’s tried-and-true. It works extremely well to give us the confidence and the inspiration we need to move forward with a kick-ass design.

We start with stakeholder interviews, which get at the meat of what the internal users of the site or system want to see, do, and push toward the target end users. Typically these stakeholder interviews give us some insight into their perceptions of their end users, but we also like to do some contextual inquiries with real end users to get a more solid and realistic understanding of their needs, goals, and behaviors with respect to a particular site or system. Oftentimes, the behaviors that internal stakeholders assume about their end users are not one hundred percent accurate. Added to these interviews is a deep dive into any existing analytics that have been collected surrounding site usage, as well as an expert audit of the site or system to identify major usability hurdles or other red flags.

Then it’s on to the creative and super fun side of user research – user profiles (also called personas) and user journeys (also called scenarios). This is where the user’s story starts. We take everything we have learned about the major target audiences of the site or system – including stakeholders – and then write a story for each of them. The profiles detail the user’s demographic info, tech savviness, and basic motivations, needs, and goals. The journeys outline a “happy path” through an ideal site or system.

From here, we typically present the profiles and journeys back to the client and solicit feedback about important pieces we may have left out. Then, once the client agrees on the types of users we’ve identified and the journeys those users will take on their site, it’s on to design!

The full suite of user research methodology is great for a number of reasons:

  1. It gives us the opportunity to delve deep into the subject matter associated with the site or system.
  2. It offers the stakeholders a constructive and objective outside perspective on end users.
  3. It cuts a wide swath across stakeholder visions and goals.
  4. It emphasizes the focus on the end user without getting caught in the weeds of edge-case users.

The main drawback to an approach like this is summed up in one word: Time. It can take several weeks to complete this process, from the time the project kicks off to the time the designers start doing their thing. Sometimes clients don’t see the value in taking this sort of time; sometimes they simply don’t have the money.

So what happens when your clients don’t have the time or the budget or the interest in going with your traditional research process? What happens when they’re working in a much more agile, much more fluid environment than your traditional process calls for?

You can still skin that cat.


The Agile Cat: Moving Fast and Getting ‘Er Done

If you’re limited on time and budget, which is often the case, we’ve got a great way to get at what you need in a speedy yet substantial way: the UX Dash.

Basically what we do here is condense our traditional deep-dive approach into three or four intensive days of user research, while at the same time getting buy-in from the client and engaging the interaction designers early on in the process. Plus it’s a great rapport builder and a lot of fun to boot!

Day One: Stakeholder Interviews

Allot about 45 minutes to an hour with each internal stakeholder or group of stakeholders (no more than 3 at a time!). What works best is for you to appropriate a conference room on-site and have sort of a revolving door of stakeholders. It’s a long day for you, but it’s worth it for that wide swath of perspectives and to start building some great rapport with the folks you’ll be spending the next three days with. Focus on goals, success metrics, and challenges perceived in undertaking this project.

What You Need:

  1. Interviewer
  2. Note taker
  3. Stakeholder(s)

What You Get:

  1. Stakeholder buy-in
  2. Varied perspectives on challenges, success metrics, and goals
  3. An insider’s guide to the site, system, and company you’re working with

Day Two: User Profiles

Here the fun starts. The day starts out with everyone in the room making a list of all possible users of the site or system, from developer to customer to board member. Once everyone’s had their say, work as a group to identify the four or five primary target audiences – those users who comprise the 80% use case.

Next, each member of your team pairs up with one or two client stakeholders, and each pair is assigned a user group. Spend the rest of the afternoon creating a profile and narrative of a typical user in your user group. This may be a stretch for some designers who aren’t used to focusing their energy on writing (or spelling, or grammar). You should act as the scribe, and let your stakeholder do most of the talking – but if you hit a wall, have some probing questions up your sleeve, like “What is Bob’s tech setup at home like?” or “How much free time does Dr. Samuelson spend reading news on the Internet?” Don’t skimp on the details – the more you can get from your stakeholder, the better.

And don’t forget to put a face to the name – a picture is worth a thousand words, and user profiles are no exception. Have your stakeholder describe the user’s face, then draw it. And don’t worry if your skills are on the lower end of the artistic spectrum. This actually adds to the rapport building with the client. You’re not being graded on visual design (yet), and your stakeholders will get a kick out of it.

Leave about an hour at the end of Day Two for each team to present the profiles to the rest of the pairs, and solicit feedback from others to really fine-tune the profile and make sure it’s as realistic for everyone as it can be.

What You Need:

  1. Facilitator
  2. 3-4 members of your team (researchers and designers)
  3. 3-6 stakeholders/clients
  4. Paper
  5. Markers
  6. Pens

What You Get:

  1. 4-5 target profiles
  2. A list of major needs and goals of target audiences
  3. A good laugh at all
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    your coworkers’ drawing ability (okay, a good laugh with your coworkers). Observe:


Day Three: User Journeys

The third day begins with everyone assembling to identify the major tasks or goals users might have when arriving at the site or system. Once everyone has given their input, work as a group to identify which user profiles would be likely to complete each of these tasks. Then break up into your pairs from the previous day, and work together with your stakeholder to create a “happy path” through an ideal system that allows the user to seamlessly and intuitively complete the tasks s/he needs to complete. It’s usually best to work with the same partner and the same profile that was created on Day Two.

We typically follow Miller’s Theory (the “magic” number falls at 7 plus or minus 2), so try to create between 5 and 9 steps in the user’s idealized journey. Again, you should be writing the journey’s narrative as your stakeholder describes it to you, but make sure you focus the stakeholder on the “happy path” and keep from referring too often to the current site or system. It’s also helpful to sketch a quick thumbnail of what that step may look like. You don’t need to create a full wireframe, but just a small representation of what each step in the journey would focus on (i.e. sign in credentials, a form, a table, error handling, etc ).

Once your journeys are done, present them to the other teams just like the previous day with profiles to solicit feedback and tweak the journeys appropriately.

What You Need:

  1. Facilitator
  2. 3-4 team members (researchers and designers)
  3. 3-6 stakeholders
  4. Paper
  5. Markers
  6. Pens

What You Get:

  1. Major tasks or goals users will complete
  2. 4-5 “happy paths”
  3. A good laugh at your design team’s writing ability (okay, a good laugh with your design team). Observe:




Day Four: Wireframing

While profile and journey creation likely caused designers to stretch their writing and researching skills, the fourth and final day pulls user researchers out of their comfort zone and throws them into the wild world of interaction design. Today you’ll spend the bulk of the day drawing screens that are pivotal to your user profile’s successful completion of tasks. What works best here is to, as a group, identify 4-5 major screens that will be important for across user groups, not just one particular group. Then, each pair spends the bulk of their day drawing one primary screen, and then an hour or so working on a secondary screen. The result here should be 1 robust, well-thought-out screen from each group and 1 secondary, less detailed screen from each group. The designers will then have 2 screen concepts as jumping-off points for 4-5 of the major screens in the site or system.

What You Need:

  1. Facilitator
  2. 3-4 team members (researchers and designers)
  3. 3-6 stakeholders
  4. Paper
  5. Markers
  6. Pens

What You Get:

  1. 2 different concepts for each of 4-5 major screens
  2. Buy-in from the client about which screens are most important for the first round of wireframing
  3. A good laugh at your research team’s expense as they grapple with wireframing (okay, a good laugh with your researchers). Observe:




Cats, Skinned

And there you have it! UX research whittled down into a smooth, speedy, and fun! process. Do you have working session experiences you want to share with us? We like a good laugh now and then – and sometimes a good cry!


Posted by: David Richard

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