In the context of business software, user research is a systematic approach to find out what exactly target users of a software product do in their work-related duties. The main focus of the research is on capturing the users’ goals, tasks, needs, pain points, information and interaction requirements. These findings are then used as input for a new or an improved software solution.
If the goal is to create a completely new software solution, user research typically takes place before a single line of code is written. But user research is also often conducted to enhance existing software and so is part of an iterative software development process.
The objective of user research is to gain a deep understanding of the target users of a software application. To this end, user researchers (typically professionals with a background in social behavioral sciences) employ a wide variety of interviewing, observation, and investigation techniques. Their objective is to collect the target users’ input as well as to capture details of the users’ work and educational background, their job role and work surroundings. Afterwards, the data gathered during the user research is systematically analyzed and evaluated. The knowledge gained in this way is essential in the software design and development to:
- cover specific end user requirements as yet unmet by currently available software
- improve the user experience of existing software solutions
- get ideas for new software products or inspiration for innovations
Ideally, user research takes place way before software development actually starts. In upfront field research, user researchers and members of the development team visit the target end users where they work. This kind of end user contact can take different forms, but typically consists of a 90-minute interview and observation session with the end user directly at his or her place of work, for example, the user’s office desk or the production machine he or she uses.
During this time, the team observes the user, listens and learns about the user’s tasks and work context and takes notes (and sometimes recordings) of what they hear and see. To obtain balanced and representative input, a minimum of 8-10 target users from at least three different companies are engaged with in this way.
Fig 1: Interviewing an end user at his place of work
Shadowing is another research method that is frequently used. This involves following and observing a user throughout a whole work day or parts of it.
Once the end user visits are completed, the user research team consolidates the data collected from all users and other experts in order to analyze it. This involves brain power, serious detective work, creativity as well as the use of lots of sticky notes, brown paper and wall space.
In the data analysis, the team:
- Derives user requirements by boiling down the many data points into descriptions, generalized across all users, of how they perform their tasks, and what the pain points, information needs and requirements are at each task step
- Creates user profiles or vivid personas that generate empathy and understanding for the target user
- Develops a realistic and up-to-date understanding of the relevant business processes, based on end-user input
Once there is a prototype or a running system with which users can try to complete their tasks, another user research method – usability testing – helps determine how well the prototype supports the user already and what may need to be changed.