User research & usability testing

About user research

User research is the process of learning about your users – their situation, background, needs and context in which they work.

Good user research is a critical component for many types of design projects and will help you:

  • Learn what people will do with your information or application
  • See when and where people will be using it
  • Learn about people’s conceptual models
  • Learn about how people think about processes and workflows
  • Learn how people really speak and the terminology they use

The research collected provides input to many aspects of information architecture and interaction design projects. Most importantly, it helps you to ensure the project provides value to users and will be usable.

Usability testing

Usability testing involves putting a system in front of people and watching how they’ll use it. It can be done at any time in a project – from early concepts to built systems, but is best done as early as possible to identify likely problems before they get into code.

User research & usability testing in a project

User research belongs toward the beginning of any design or redesign project (though it can be used later to focus on collecting more information about a detailed part). Techniques for user research include:

  • Interviews with users
  • Small group discussions
  • Observing people in their normal situation
  • Surveys and questionnaires
  • Diary studies
  • Analysis of existing information (website statistics, search statistics, customer contacts, help desk queries)

All of these methods provide good information about what your users may want to do, how they describe things and how they are likely to work.

Usability testing can be done as soon as you have a draft design – even before starting to code. Of course, it can also be done with a rough or polished prototype and on a completed system.

Where contact with actual end-users is very difficult, we can learn about users by talking with people who do have contact with them (such as call centre, sales and field staff). This approach can provide some good insights, but less than research with actual users. Usability testing cannot be conducted without real users.


Depending on the needs of the project, deliverables from user research may include:

  • A set of user profiles, outlining the key attributes that describe the user group
  • A set of personas, describing individual archetypal users as a rich narrative
  • Key issues to consider when designing for the user group
  • Detailed notes or transcripts from research activities

Deliverables from usability testing will include a list of findings from the testing (as broad or detailed as you need) and action items to follow up.

When to get me involved

I usually conduct user research and usability testing as part of design projects, but can do it as a stand-alone step where needed.