Three tips to conducting user research

By Natania

Have you ever looked at your data in Google Analytics and wondered why no one is engaging with certain content you worked so hard to curate and develop? Why there’s an 80% bounce rate on a resource page that should address the needs of the users it’s intended to serve? Or why your returning users are dwindling and not coming back to re-engage with you?

ThinkShout has always emphasized how our work is data-informed, because when you base recommendations on indisputable data instead of feelings or office politics, it makes an air-tight case for your strategic direction and serves as the anchor for your project. But there are often instances in which the data only tells part of the story, and you have to [gasp] talk to people!

Let’s get into it…

Your website exists for two primary reasons:

  1. To tell the story of, and make a compelling case for your organization, and
  2. To provide content of value to your users / constituents / advocates

However, we often encounter the following:

  1. Site visitors are not finding something that directly serves them and their needs or interests, often because…
  2. Your strategy is guided by “gut feelings” of decision-makers, pet projects or programs that someone in leadership or on your board thinks is important, or other politically-charged rationale.

When your site and its content only reflects the needs and desires of a select few within your organization (rather than your primary target audiences), your site and your mission becomes less sustainable. More importantly, your ability to attract and retain constituents will diminish over time. What you’re sharing and communicating about your organization has to serve your audience while tying back to your goals in very intentional, strategic ways. Spoiler alert: this is not achieved overnight! But user research can help you get there, and it will bring the focus of your strategy back to your end-user and make you more successful, long-term.

There are a number of ways to go about user research. The primary tools we utilize are interviews (in-person or over the phone), and/or sending out a survey to an email list. ThinkShout has found that we’ve garnered the most comprehensive results when combining both methods. The following are some tips to help you successfully conduct user research at your organization.

Step 1: Find the People

Finding people

Finding people to participate in your interviews can feel the most challenging. Your criteria for selecting participants is important, and you need to be sure you are including a diverse range of users and audiences so your results aren’t biased or skewed in a particular direction.

When it comes to sample size or how many people to include, 8 is fine if you’re strapped for time or budget (8 -16 individuals is a typical range); although we have interviewed as many as 20 people in certain projects to ensure equity in the responses we receive. When it comes to recruiting, think about the following:

  • What’s their relationship to the organization (do they know you well or not at all?)
  • Are we representing multiple perspectives / levels of engagement (think demographics or types of supporters)
  • Who should be using your site or platform (we want to engage millennials more!)
  • Who rejected/abandoned the site or platform (track down deeply lapsed donors)
  • Who has used it multiple times (who signs all your petitions and is your biggest fan?)

This diversity in perspectives is key in identifying areas of opportunity, because sometimes you can’t see things until you step outside of them (fish didn’t discover water, after all). And it’s rather myopic to assume you and your colleagues are able to identify what’s missing from your site and how audiences want to experience it. As the saying goes, “you are not your user.”

Step 2: Determine What You Will Ask Them

Once you have your sample size and interview audience, you need a good set of open-ended questions. Try to formulate them so they have to answer beyond just “yes” or “no.” For example, instead of asking:

“Do you think mentorship is a valuable tool in career development?”

Ask this: “What do you consider are the most effective professional growth and development activities/tools for someone at your career stage?”

At ThinkShout, we like to use a matrix to transform questions-we-want-answers-to into questions-we-will-ask (they are not the same, and sadly, it doesn’t involve Keanu Reeves).

Keanu is sad

The matrix includes the questions you know you want to ask and provides a structure, and then allows you the freedom to deviate from them should your conversation go down an interesting path. These questions can also be used in a survey should you want to cast a wider net.

Actual User Research Matrix

Actual user research matrix from a recent project.

Once you have your questions lined up, structure how you’ll conduct your interview. Usually they are comprised of four sections:

  • Intro and Participant background: “tell me about yourself and how you got connected with X”
  • Main body: subsections for each area you plan to explore with the questions you structured in your matrix
  • Projection/Dream questions: Ask about ideal experiences “If time and money were no object, what would your ideal solution look like?”
  • Wrap up and thank you

In some cases, you may want to prep a release or even kick off with a statement about how these responses will or will not be used. Also, be sure you get permission to record your respondent. If they don’t give you permission, then you’ll want to take copious notes and protect their privacy.

Step 3: Get Ideal Results

Some people are born with an aptitude for interviewing (I’m looking at you, Marc Maron), but in most cases, becoming a good interviewer is a learned skill. Here are some tips for conducting interviews that will lead you to gathering the most comprehensive information possible.

Interviewing Best Practices

  • Check your worldview at the door: Let go of your assumptions and expectations. Verbalize and give your assumptions a voice as part of the exercise. Ask questions you (think you) know the answers to.
  • Embrace how others see the world: When possible, go where your users are rather than asking them to come to you.
  • Build Rapport: Be selective about social graces (just enough small talk); and be selective about talking about yourself (reveal personal info to give them permission to share)
  • Work towards tipping point (move from question-answer to question-story)
  • Listen – this is a big one! Asking questions shows you’re listening: follow-up with statements like, ‘earlier you told us…’ Also, signal transitions: “We’re gonna change gears and switch topics” – signal your lane change so they are aware and go with you.
  • After you ask your question, be silent. It’s human nature to avoid awkward silences. Sometimes not saying anything prompts your subject to elaborate more. Use that to give them space to provide more details.

Now What?

We tend to see patterns in responses emerge after about 5 or 6 interviews. But if you have the bandwidth to do more than that, and to include a range of subjects from different backgrounds, we encourage you to do so! Showing you’ve been thorough in your research (and not just waiting to hear the answer you want) is especially more compelling when selling your case to your leadership team or board.

Let’s check in: have you been nodding your head this whole time thinking, “this is amazing and I’d love to do this but WHO HAS THE TIME? NOT ME, A NONPROFIT STAFFER!”

Ain't got time

It’s ok! We’re here to help. Are there 5 people you can spend 10 minutes with? Start small, and know that some insight is better than none. And if you’re hungry for more user research than you can manage on your own, we’d love to partner with you to expand your efforts. ThinkShout has experience working with a variety of nonprofit organizations on these types of engagements. Our team knows how to get to the heart of what users really want, and as an objective third party, we can help guide you so you can achieve maximum impact. Contact us if you’d like to know more!