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At the beginning of any new project I start with a research phase. Depending on the project and type of engagement this could be a huge piece of work. For example if I was working in a new domain, for a new client or the project was outside of anything I’d tackled, I might look to collaborate with a dedicated researcher, working within the team - somebody with a background in applied research, both qualitative and quantitative.

My UX Bookshelf
My non-digital UX bookshelf

On the other hand, it could be a relatively quick and painless process. When working for an existing client on incremental changes to a service where many aspects are already known and knowledge of the audience is intimate, it is more realistic to understand that a huge research budget won't be available - This is often my situation today and very common in general.

Guerrilla in the room

I’m an innie (in-house designer) on a small multi-disciplinary team. Any research role is likely going to fall onto my shoulders. Guerrilla User Research is the order of the day. This can be achieved in many ways. Below are ways I’ve made it work for me.

There are a couple of great books that cover this topic if you’re interested in a bit more detail. Try Leah Buley’s excellent “The User Experience Team Of One” published by Rosenfeld and “Undercover User Experience Design” by Cennydd Bowles and James Box on New Riders. Both of these titles have earned their place on my UX Bookshelf.

UX Team of One and Undercover User Experience
The User Experience Team of One and Undercover User Experience Design
Down to business

While finding out about customers or users is massively important, it’s also imperative that I’m able to bring the business along. This is where I start. After all, the work I’m doing is for them. They are paying my bills and allowing me to do this exciting work for a living.

Understanding why a project exists, what its aims are and how its success will be measured are the first things I like to learn about any new engagement.

It’s not to say business objectives live in a bubble, no. Creating value for customers by offering a product that is useful, useable and desirable in any market will have a benefit to the company, both in reputation and financially.

Working in businesses with multiple stakeholders can test the ‘softer’ UX skill set. Empathy dials will need to be turned up to 11 and priority balancing skills get a good testing.

As somebody who is naturally interested in people I tend to use my listening skills, to tap into the real problem to be solved and gently bring all stakeholders along, once people understand I’m only there to support their objectives and will help them deliver whatever it is we’re designing together, the project success chances are raised.

Who is the customer? Using existing knowledge to find out

I’ve taken many opportunities to learn more about our audience and customers. First port of call is talking with front line staff, reading transcripts and listening to recordings. Recordings? Yes, the recordings we get when the IVR system kicks in and lets callers know that ‘This call is being recorded for training and monitoring purposes’. Okay so it didn’t say that the training was for UX folk, but anyway…

Meet Marketing

Ive worked in businesses where the Marketing team have reims of customer data that they’re happy to share, demographic data, profiles, motivations etc which can help in a great deal in the creation of personas and other artefacts that can help you learn more.

Meeting face to face

I go out to trade shows when possible and meet our customers face to face to talk shop. These people use our services daily and aren’t afraid to give their opinions and will happily look over proposed features or walk through new designs.

Every opportunity is an opportunity!

Another source of research I’ve found useful is the much frowned upon (in research circles) customer forum.

Forums and Trade Showa
Customer forums and trade shows are great learning opportunities

While conversation can be led by 'group think' Loud people can bring their one agenda to the floor and dominate while shy people maybe talk less. Fear not, there really are some positives. I’ve found that customer forums can be great in the sense that the customers feel listened to and valued, this helps massively in future ‘reaching out’ activities and at if at least one nugget of information lands in my lap before the session is over, then great. Don’t think once the forum is finished the opportunities to learn are over. They’ve just started.

The art of small talk

The richest opportunity to learn in the above situations, comes later after the session. Having watched the dynamic during the day I’ll try to work out which people might be worth sliding up to. After the main event, people usually kick back and relax a bit more. In a one-to-one situation customers are happy to open up and allow me to get a better understanding of how they operate, what their day to day might involve and how our service fits into the puzzle.

I’ve found this type of research really lends itself to the creation of an artefact somewhere between a fully blown persona and what is known as proto-personas in the UX world. Proto-Personas, like standard personas allow you to create an idea of a customer or user that can be shared with the wider project team to help lead empathetic customer focussed thought when running through ideas, features, flows and goals.

Analyse this

Another useful tool is Analytics. Like a rear view mirror, analytics will tell me what has happened. Granted this data won’t tell me the ‘why’. And it’s really the why that is important. The answer to why can be sought in other ways. Looking at a journey and seeing drop-offs, or low conversions in an area gives me a starting point, without this the alarm bells in my head might not ring.

While I can find my way around Google Analytics, I prefer to leave this to the experts on my team, I realise I can’t know or do everything, and my strength might be better spent solving the issue. This is why I’m part of a team after all! Having somebody around who can really dig into the analytics data and bring back that information is hugely important.

Conclusion

Even without having a huge budget and specialist research staff we can still find out loads about our audience and their needs, company goals and success criteria. Everything to get me on the way to delivering a great end product.

For the above reasons, working with people long term, understanding different personalities and motivations, really getting under the skin of our customers helps me engage and ultimately get my job done. It’s why I love being an innie on longer term engagements rather than an agency guy parachuting in and out again, having some ownership in the success of a project makes me get out of bed in the morning.