Primary research

Primary research refers to any method of getting input directly from users. There are a number of different methods available. They all have their unique use, value, pros and cons. Consider them all a part of your research toolkit.

In-person versus remote research

In-person research is often conducted in a research lab, although there are discount methods such as hallway testing, where you stop a coworker in the hallway to ask a few questions. Advantages include that you can observe the person, the whole person and their body language, and that you can build a rapport as a researcher face-to-face. The downsides are that it is expensive and logistically complex.

Remote research has steadily been gaining ground and its popularity received a boost during COVID time. While the advantages of in-person research are not available, this method has a much wider geographical reach, no travel is required from either party, users are participating in their own environment where they likely feel comfortable and their equipment is familiar to them, and overall it is far less expensive and logistically less complex.

Remote moderated versus unmoderated research

Remote research can further be divided into moderated and unmoderated methods. Moderated interviews are typically conducted using specialized software or generic call conferencing software (e.g. Zoom, ...). Unmoderated research is done asynchronously, the participant may record a video of themselves as they complete a task using a product, or they may be answering survey questions (both multiple choice questions and open-ended questions).

The main advantage of moderated research in addition to the advantages of remote research is the ability to observe the participant (e.g. hesitations as they speak, frowning when using webcam, ...) and to ask follow-on questions based on observed behavior or participant feedback. The main disadvantages include the inability to observe and interact in real life, possible technical challenges with software, connections, audio, screen share, etc.

The advantages of unmoderated methods include a more natural environment, since participants don't feel "observed", logistically light which may make it easier to gather feedback from a larger number of participants, and fast turnaround. Disadvantages include the lack of follow-on questions or guidance to participants who are stuck or not understanding the questions or tasks, and possible lack of clarity around authenticity of the user feedback since it's done asynchronously.

The research "product"

It is entirely feasible to conduct user interviews or surveys that only ask about users' past experiences with similar products or similar situations, and their desires for future products, etc. as a set of questions.

It is also possible to have users use a product while providing feedback and answering questions. This product could be a competitor's product, in which case we call this "competitive user research". It is a great way to understand what users like and don't like in terms of features and their experience, what's missing and what's superfluous. This can be very valuable input to the design cycle. The disadvantages of competitive user research are the effort involved; each product that is reviewed is essentially a user research study on its own. Review 3 products and effort, cost and time have just tripled. It may also be difficult to recruit participants who use a specific product, depending on the nature of the product.

Choosing a method

The method of choice very much depends on the particular circumstances, including the type of product or service, the type of user you want to get feedback from, budget, timeline, etc... Further details are outside of the scope of this documentation. Consider Remote Usability Testing by Inge De Bleecker and Rebecca Okoroji or similar titles.

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