This is not intended to act as a comprehensive guide to user research. Where appropriate I have provided links for further reading.

To deliver a service that meets your users’ needs, you have to understand:

  • who your likely users are
  • what they’re trying to do
  • how they’re trying to do it now
  • how their life or work influences what they do and how
  • how they use and experience existing services

The better you understand your users, the more likely you are to design and build a service that works well for them.

How can I find users?

  • Recruitment agencies are good for speaking to a wide range of people.
  • Be clear in writing, what type of person you want to speak to.
  • These services can be expensive.
  • 3rd party organisations like charities are good when you want to speak to specific groups.
  • Use pop up research to fill in the gaps. Pop up research is helpful to understand context i.e. how does a user normally interact with this service.
  • Citizen advice bureau is a great place to do pop up research.
  • When you speak to users, you need to ensure they have given their ‘informed consent’ in writing. You need to be clear with them how you will use their data.

Further reading: getting users consent for research

Further reading: find user research participants

What’s important for you to know first?

  • You can frame what you need to know using the following: To [do our thing] We need to know… How…? What…? Why…?
  • Asking ‘How do users expect to do something’ can also help you frame your user research.
  • It’s important to think about what success looks like too. If you have something you wish to achieve it can help frame the questions you ask.

Technique: Brainstorm This exercise will help you frame your research questions.

  • Individually write down everything you want to know on sticky notes
  • As a group, discuss what you have written down
  • Refine together and start to group common themes together on a wall
  • See if you can refine groups further
  • Focus your research on the common themes first

Further reading: capturing research questions

Further reading: how a knowledge Kanban board can help your user research

Rest Photo by Pixabay

How can I understand how people think, feel and act?

Technique: User interviews Go out and speak to your users! Try to speak to five users of each user type. One-on-one discussions with users show you how a particular user works. They enable you to get detailed information about a user’s attitudes, desires, and experiences. Moderated discussion with a group of users, allow you to learn about user attitudes, ideas, and desires. Surveys can be useful too if you want to understand trends in a larger population size.

21% of the UK lack basic online skills (see digital inclusion scale). It’s important to design services that everyone can use.

A lot of the prompts here are relevant for usability tests too.

  • If you want to understand more about their background ask: What devices do you use…? (rather than asking do you use the internet) What support do you need…? (you can find out if people need help from others).
  • Prompts like the below can help you tease out more detail when speaking to users: What are you doing now…? What makes you prefer this…? Can you tell me more…? How do these compare…? You said before…? In what way…? Can you tell me why you asked that question…? What makes you think that…?
  • Recognise emotions: In what way was that reassuring…? You said this was scary…?
  • If you are confused about what a user has said, you can seek clarification by asking: Can I just check that…? I didn’t understand…? Just so I’m sure, did you do this…?
  • Avoid speculation and asking users ‘Next year, what do you think if we did…’

Further reading: using in-depth interviews

Further reading: challenging research topics

What do people think of my service?

Technique: Usability test Ask the user to complete a task or to achieve a goal. Good usability tests must be challenging and clear.

  • When a user is completing a task and they have encountered an issue i.e. they are not sure where to click. You can guide the user to the next stage. Note the issue down.
  • Users can play themselves or follow a persona.
  • Ideally you want the user to play themselves as they are more likely to think for themselves.
  • [Using moderated usability testing](
  • Avoid speculation and asking users ‘Next year, what do you think if we did…’

Further reading: moderated usability testing

Technique: User journey mapping Map out the user journey with your team. After you speak to your users you can start to fill out the gaps in your understanding. Alternatively you can ask users to map out their own journey using sticky notes. This technique helps you understand who the users are, the touchpoints with other services and areas for focus.

Further reading: how to make a user journey map


Technique: Writing user stories User stories describe a user and the reason why they need to use the service you’re building. Ask users to write user stories. It gets them to focus on their needs. The format is as follows:

  • As a… [who is the user?]
  • I need/want/expect to… [what does the user want to do?]
  • So that… [why does the user want to do this?]

Further reading: writing user stories

Example: As a British Citizen, I need a passport, so that I can travel abroad.

How do you know if your design meet user needs?

Technique: Design crit This can be done with users or within a team. You should see your designs evolve each time you run this exercise. You end up with designs that better meet user needs.

Within a team:

  • Print off a visual of what you have designed e.g. homepage of the website
  • Ask the team to critically think about the design (what do users think now, what if we did this…)
  • This is a time to come up with different ideas and experiment. Team members are encouraged to be creative here.
  • As an example, you can ask team members to visualise a part of the design on a piece of paper eight times, changing the design in each iteration. Spend 30 seconds per design. You can run this exercise with users too.

With users:

  • Show what you have designed to users
  • Ask them what they think (be careful of asking leading questions like; what do you like?)
  • Ask them to come up with different ideas, and to mock-up visuals of how they would expect it to work. It’s helpful to let users annotate over the designs. Encourage them to be creative.

Further reading: 9 rules for running a productive design critique

Rest Photo by Kaboompics // Karolina

How do you know if your content meets user needs?

Technique: Content markup

This technique helps you create content according to user needs. Keep content focused.

  • Print off A3 designs of your content in situ e.g. print off your homepage on A3.
  • Ask users to read the content
  • Then ask users to markup useful content in green and unhelpful content in pink
  • While users are marking up the content, ask them to ‘think aloud’.
  • You are interested in what people are doing (what they focus on), thinking and feeling.

Further reading: running a content crit

Further reading: ways to test content with users

Technique: Card sorting

Allows users to group your site’s information. This helps ensure that the site structure matches the way users think. In a card sorting session, participants organise topics into categories that make sense to them and they may also help you label these groups. To conduct a card sort, you can use actual cards, pieces of paper, or one of several online card-sorting software tools. Knowing how your users group information can help you:

  • Build the structure for your website
  • Decide what to put on the homepage
  • Label categories and navigation



The purpose of personas is to create reliable and realistic representations of your key audience segments for reference. These representations should be based on qualitative and some quantitative user research and web analytics. Remember, your personas are only as good as the research behind them. Effective personas:

  • Represent a major user group for your website
  • Express and focus on the major needs and expectations of the most important user groups
  • Give a clear picture of the user’s expectations and how they’re likely to use the site
  • Aid in uncovering universal features and functionality
  • Describe real people with backgrounds, goals, and values

Benefits of Personas

Personas help to focus decisions surrounding site components by adding a layer of real-world consideration to the conversation. They also offer a quick and inexpensive way to test and prioritise those features throughout the development process. In addition they can help:

  • Stakeholders and leaders evaluate new site feature ideas
  • Information architects develop informed wireframes, interface behaviours, and labeling
  • Designers create the overall look and feel of the website
  • System engineers/developers decide which approaches to take based on user behaviours
  • Copywriters ensure site content is written to the appropriate audiences

Best Practices for Developing Personas

Personas development belongs at the beginning of the project, as personas can inform site functionality, help uncover gaps, or highlight new opportunities.

You may develop one or more personas for a project but limit yourself to the main audiences for the site. For any given project, creating only three or four personas is best. Remember that it is better to paint with a broad brush and meet the needs of the larger populations than try to meet the needs of everyone.

The goal of personas is not represent all audiences or address all needs of the website but instead to focus on the major needs of the most important user groups.

To ensure your personas are accurate representations of your users and have the support of your stakeholders throughout the process, you should:

  • Answer the following questions: Who are your users and why are they using the system? What behaviors, assumptions, and expectations color their view of the system?
  • Condense the research: Look for themes/characteristics that are specific, relevant, and universal to the system and its users.
  • Brainstorm: Organize elements into persona groups that represent your target users. Name or classify each group.
  • Refine: Combine and prioritize the rough personas. Separate them into primary, secondary, and, if necessary, complementary categories. You should have roughly 3–5 personas and their identified characteristics.
  • Make them realistic: Develop the appropriate descriptions of each personas background, motivations, and expectations. Do not include a lot of personal information. Be relevant and serious; humor is not appropriate.

Elements of a Persona

Personas generally include the following key pieces of information:

  • Persona Group (i.e. web manager)
  • Fictional name
  • Job titles and major responsibilities
  • Demographics such as age, education, ethnicity, and family status
  • The goals and tasks they are trying to complete using the site
  • Their physical, social, and technological environment
  • A quote that sums up what matters most to the persona as it relates to your site
  • Casual pictures representing that user group

Further reading: using personas

Work Via

How do I analyse all my user research? Affinity mapping

  • Re-read your findings.
  • Write down on post it notes: interesting quotes, behaviours, expectations etc.
  • Put onto a wall, and identify higher level groups/themes.
  • Start to move post it notes under these groups/themes.
  • Within those higher level groups/themes, you may want to sub-categorise each higher level group.


  • Focus on 5–10 things you have identified as important during user research.
  • Focusing on too much can mean you lack focus.
  • Use the outputs of your research to inform your designs, content etc.
  • User research never ends.
  • You should be constantly iterating based on user research.

Further resources

Thank you for reading! I hope this helped. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions/comments.