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January 15, 2019

How and Why We Do UX Research

MetaLab’s design philosophy is pretty simple: We build excellent user experiences. That’s it. Our philosophy is 5 words long. It’s shorter than some Starbucks drink orders. 

When you only have 5 words in your design philosophy every word counts.  And if one word in that phrase counted  2   3 times, it would be “user.” 

User research is at the crux of our design process. We believe you can’t build a good product if you don’t know who you’re designing for. Call us design-led or research-led. We wouldn’t mind. We like words with hyphens. But that hyphenated list is missing that very important word in our 5-word philosophy: user. 

Our goal is to make useful, valuable, and beautiful products. That’s how you delight people and exceed your business goals. And to do all that, we have to know a lot about the people who’ll fall in love with your product. 

The more the designer knows about the user, the better the product will be. 

When you're building a chair just for you, one data point (your opinion) really matters. When you're building millions of the same chair to sell to millions of people, it makes sense to get a few more data points.

So who does the UX research at MetaLab?

Well, our research team does. It only makes sense. It’s in our title. But wherever possible, designers take part in ux research, too. Designers play an integral part—even if it isn’t explicitly in their title. Designers sit in on user interviews and sometimes moderate user testing or focus groups. 

The more the designer knows about the user, the better the product will be. 

And although UX researchers and the designers do the lion’s share of the user research work (with researchers doing the mother lion’s share—again research is in our name), every team member touches UX research. Including clients.

User research is not a solo effort. 

So how and when do you do UX research at MetaLab?

Honestly, there’s no time in a product’s lifecycle that you shouldn’t be researching. 

You should start with it and launch with it. And keep testing in production. It’s like voting. Do it early and often. 

We start our user research at the discovery phase at MetaLab. But that’s just the beginning. 

The first user research task for MetaLab is always a group effort to understand:

  • What is this industry all about?
  • What do customers care about?
  • Who is this client really? And how can we help them meet their goals?

We dive into a lot of different spaces with a lot of cool clients. From fintech to fast food, we’re often the fresh eyes our clients need to see the forest and the trees. We come in with no preconceived notions, so we can leave with a great product. 

Our first phase is discovery. During discovery we: 

  • Conduct secondary UX research (which is an inside baseball way to say reading a lot)
  • Interview stakeholders
  • Create experience maps
  • Create assumption maps
  • Hold cross-functional workshops (which we call kickoffs)

At this time, UX researchers are soaking up everything they can from stakeholders, articles, books, market research and anything available that relates to our design problem at hand. Plus, we’re creating assumption maps with the team. We’re building a strong foundation for the way ahead. 

A hypthetical assumption map for Instagram used in the discovery phase
A hypothetical assumption map for Instagram

After discovery, there is still user research to do. UX researchers dive into user experience, interviewing, testing, surveying. Designers continue checking what’s out there in the industry with direct and indirect competitors. They’re finding what’s great and what’s not-so-great. The goal is to find holes we can fill with awesome features and useful products. 

Honestly, there’s no time in a product’s lifecycle that you shouldn’t be researching. 

The UX researcher creates the research plan and the whole team piles on to review and refine it. Every team member is part of the final user research plan, even clients. A developer may need a different question answered than a content person who may need a different question answered than the client. All team members need to understand what the user wants and who the user is. 

After discovery we complete our competitive analysis and conduct:

  • User interviews
  • User tests on existing products
  • Contextual inquiries (observing people in the situations they'd be using your product)
  • Surveys

What does UX research touch during the design planning?

User research touches everything. Before designers pick up a pen or open their laptops to start sketching and prototyping, they need to know what features to work on. 

At MetaLab we create actionable UX research. We don’t make decks that sit locked in a vault like a treasure in an Indiana Jones movie. Our user research tells us what features the product needs to have and how important those features are. It’s important to us that our clients go to market with an MVP. Not too bloated to be overwhelming or unsustainable, not too lean to be useless. 

A validated feature set for an event app based on user research
Validated Feature Set

Our UX research creates a scoped and validated feature set. Once we have our prioritized feature set, our designers can open their laptops to sketch. 

So we’ve started wireframes and Hi-Fi design, how does UX research help now?

Now it’s time for some user experience testing! At the wireframe stage, our designers are focused on product flow and function. They create sketches we user test to answer some higher level questions. We test our designs to make sure they’re accomplishing what they’re meant to, are usable, and provide value. 

The spectrum of audience size needed for research based on a product's lifecycle
Sample groups get smaller as we move closer to the final product

We test 1-2 times on wireframes and often 1-2 more when the designs are more polished, at the Hi-Fi state. And Hi-Fi, cornily enough, is a time for high fives. Watching users fall in love with your product can feel like you won the Superbowl. Although… no one has dumped icy Gatorade on a UX researcher at MetaLab. Yet. 

During wireframes and Hi-Fi we: 

  • Conduct usability tests
  • Conduct preference testing

After launch, there's more user research isn't there?

You got it. The future of a product is a researcher's ongoing responsibility. We’re there to help prioritize new features and to A/B test features in production. 

Good UX research, great product 

We’ve told you everything we do. It’s not a secret. We’re no more afraid of sharing this information than a Michelin-starred chef would be worried to tell you the ingredients of their flan. Because it’s not just the ingredients. It’s how you do it, the years of experience, the know-how to tell you that your flan will sink if you take it out of the oven too soon.

We’ve shipped more than 172 products. We make a pretty great metaphorical flan.

And we’re constantly refining—we learn more from every project.

Our advice to you: build for the user, keep things scoped, and design collaboratively. 

You can only do this with user research.

Celebrate little wins
Embrace the scroll
Coach them though big ideas
Embrace the scroll
...make sure anyone can use it
Give them one task at a time
Teach by example
Create a 'consumer-friendly' feel
Focus on the most common user needs, but...
Start with mobile
Principles we
can use today