Scale Your User Research

by Megan Fath

Scoping and scaling user research requires a bit of strategic thinking and craftiness. Two attributes all of us have as a group of talented designers. Try some of these tips and considerations to help craft a rich, thoughtful—yet appropriately scaled and concise—research plan.

Rein In Your Scope
Is this a “what to make” project or a “how to make it better” project? Not every project requires a large ethnographic scale research approach. Establish whether your goal in collecting insight is to understand the problem or solve the problem. When informing how to improve upon already established and concrete parameters, your research scope can scale smaller and more targeted.

Think Incremental
Get beyond limiting research to a one-off. If you have an ongoing (or growing) relationship with a client, consider breaking research into a phased process spanning a few projects to grow user knowledge.

Inspire or Iterate?
Consider what part of your design process would benefit most from user input. Do you have some design ideas already or are you stumped before even getting started? Judge whether the user will help most in jump-starting the thinking or as feedback later to assist with design iterations.

Leverage Assets From Client
Talk to your client about existing research. A good starting point might be there in their offices and they haven’t realized it could be beneficial to you. Taking inventory will avoid redundant data gathering and build off existing foundational knowledge.

Access Knowledge Gaps and Prioritize
Likewise take stock of your own knowledge needs for the project. Examine this against the research you have received from the client to identify knowledge gaps. Lastly, rank your knowledge gaps as must-haves, nice-to-haves and non-critical.

Fine-Tune Your Targets
Target the true users as research participants- think quality over quantity. Also your criteria for finding participants should go beyond finding people that meet the demographic profile and screen on key behaviors.

Backwards Engineer
Before getting started with planning your research, imagine what kind of user insight would be most helpful to you and the design team in creating the final design.

Here’s a scenario to help stimulate thoughts and inspiration…

Suppose you were asked to create a brochure for Latino high school students to promote a university’s academic assistance program designed for Latinos students. Their budget is small and yet this brochure is a significant communication touch point and investment. You are neither Latino or sixteen.

Faced with this challenge in real-life, I created a list of critical issues and knowledge gaps that I felt would later be obstacles to the design, such as role of language, identity and acculturation. I then talked to a high school art teacher at a largely a Latino-based high school in the area. We devised an art project, asking students to take photographs of their own visual language with disposable cameras that I provided. The students shared these photographs and their narration was an opportunity to ask questions. This helped me create a few visual concepts for the brochure. Engaged in the topic, the students then reviewed my concepts. Thus with very little money, a bit of creativity and collaboration, the end brochure spoke to them as the intended audience.


icon of person with book and beaker, shown large and small

Scoping and scaling user research requires a bit of strategic thinking and craftiness. Two attributes all of us have as a group of talented designers.


Quick Tips
1. Don’t make it a line item in the proposal. Either detail your research just as you do your design plan. Or go guerilla.

2. Leverage your network to help locate research participants (Note: recommend second degree and not your own friends and family. Mom loves everything you make).

3. Step away from Flickr and get outside to observe. Context is king.


Dig Deeper!
1. Anthrodesign is a useful email community.

2. Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research, a book in the Ethnographer’s Toolkit series, is a great way to start.

3. Check out this handy guide for design research, step by step, from Copernicus Consulting.


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