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Choosing and using research methods

Our fourth research principle is to be methodical, but not rigid. At dxw, we don’t have a fixed set of approved research methods. But when we plan our research, we do need to choose appropriate methods for the context and apply them well.

We prefer tried and trusted methods that can provide strong evidence and reliable answers to our questions, for the least time, effort and cost.

And we make sure to use these methods in ways that are inclusive and accessible, and safe for our participants and ourselves.

We also consider a team’s level of experience with user research. So we may prefer simpler methods like interviews and usability testing that the team can easily understand and get involved in.

This guide lists our favourite books, articles and videos on the different research methods we use. In future we aim to add links to any tools and templates we have created, along with good examples from previous projects.

Human centred research and design #

At dxw, we follow human centred design practices to start with people and their needs.

Interviews #

Interviews are a flexible way to learn more about different types of users, including their circumstances, previous experiences, motivations and needs from services.

We choose interviews when:

We sometimes combine interviews with usability testing, by talking to participants to understand previous experiences and current use, before asking them to try out a prototype or service.

Contextual research and observation #

Contextual research means visiting people in their everyday environment (like their home, work or school) to observe how they do an activity.

Watching someone complete a task in familiar surroundings with their own equipment (and usual distractions) can help us better understand how they use an existing service, what does and doesn’t work well for them, and what they might need from a future service.

We choose contextual research and observation when:

Experience and journey mapping #

Experience and journey maps provide a visual representation of what users do, think and feel over time.

There is no precise distinction between the two kinds of maps. But experience maps most often cover a person’s entire experience of a whole life event, and may include their interactions with a number of services. While journey maps tend to cover their path through a particular service.

We choose experience mapping when we want to:

We choose journey mapping when we want to:

Profiles, archetypes and personas #

Profiles and personas are ways to describe what we’ve learned about the different groups of people who might use, operate or be affected by a service. These groups can be people who play a particular role in a service, or who share some defining circumstances that mean they have similar needs.

There is no precise distinction between the two types of descriptions. But a profile (sometimes also called an archetype) most often focuses on the common aspects of the group. While a persona uses a fictional, yet realistic, character and associated narrative to represent the group.

Either way, profiles and personas should focus on peoples’ roles and motivations, actions and interactions, circumstances and capabilities, experiences and needs.

When creating personas we do not give them names, photos, ages or other demographic details that can create unintended bias in readers.

We choose profiles when:

We choose profiles or personas when:

We choose personas when:

Workshops and group activities #

Interactive workshops with small groups can be an effective method for user research.

They can help us learn more about the things that actual or likely users do, how they do them, how they think and make decisions, and how they feel about their experiences.

We choose workshops when we want to:

We also do workshops with stakeholders, teams and subject matter experts, as a good first step to get an overview of a new area and build trust in preparation for more detailed research.

When researching very sensitive subjects, we understand that some participants may want more privacy and confidentiality than a group workshop can provide.

We also bear in mind that we don’t get twice as many findings by inviting twice as many people to a session. If there’s nothing to gain from having several participants together, we run individual research sessions using methods such as interviews, contextual observation or experience mapping.

Surveys #

With surveys we ask a defined group of people a set of questions, and analyse their answers to produce findings.

We choose surveys when we need quantitative data (numbers), know what questions we want to ask, and know who we want to ask.

If we’re not sure about any of those things - maybe we don’t yet know which questions are important, or who it’s important to ask - then we start with other methods like interviews. And consider doing a survey later, when things are clearer.

Concept testing #

In concept testing we walk participants through representations of our design ideas, like sketches or diagrams, to see how well our designs might meet their needs.

Through concept testing we can learn more about:

We choose concept testing when we want to evaluate our designs, but do not yet have a properly interactive prototype or working service that people can try out for real. Concept testing is particularly useful when you want to quickly explore several alternative design ideas.

We can run concept testing with individual participants, or with small groups, when conversations between participants can bring out additional points.

We often combine concept testing with initial interviews to understand more about a participant’s circumstances, experiences and needs. And follow up with workshop activities to iterate the concepts.

Content research #

In content research we are focussed on how people find, understand, interact with and act on different kinds of content about and within services.

We choose card sorting to explore the associations people have between different words and concepts, and how people see things fitting into groups or categories.

We choose tree testing to test how participants might navigate a proposed information architecture.

We choose highlighter and similar tests to see how well participants understand and can act on content, like guidance, letters or notifications.

Usability testing #

Usability testing is where we ask participants to try to complete specific tasks using our service.

Usability testing can be moderated or unmoderated.

In moderated usability testing, we are present during the session, either in person or online. We describe the tasks we want participants to try. And will usually ask them to ‘think aloud’ as they move through the service to help us understand what they are doing, thinking and feeling.

In unmoderated usability testing, we provide participants with the tasks we want them to try, and access to the service we want to test. And participants complete the tasks on their own. We may record the unmoderated tests and ask participants to think aloud for the recording, or capture only web page analytics and the data entered.

We choose usability testing when we have an existing service, a working prototype, or a newly built service, and want to know how well it works for likely users.

Last updated: 18 March 2024 (history)