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Testing assumptions – What makes a good user researcher?

By Jess Lewes

Business Development Director


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It’s the million dollar question: what makes a good user researcher? PFR’s Jess Lewes recently had a chat with Ollie Francis, a user experience consultant with over 20 years experience in the field, on this topic. Ollie is the founder of the Bristol-based consultancy Deckchair and has worked on projects for the NHS, Department of Health, University of Bristol, LeasePlan and BP. He is focused on getting under the skin of the real problem, embracing the chaos early in a project and working with client teams to deliver customer-centric projects that drive real business results.

What led you into user research?

ollie francis user researcherThe reason I got into user research is because I became frustrated with the subjective world of aesthetic design. As the web matured and our process evolved, at Deckchair we become acutely aware that design was still seen by the client as something they could make the final decisions on even if we knew that users would not engage with the results.

User research gave us facts, it gave us the ultimate leveler: this is what your customer wants, here is the evidence. User research helped take us from a subjective world to an objective one.

In your opinion, what makes a good user researcher?

Among other things, it takes curiosity, discipline and practice to become a good user researcher. You have to be interested in people and how they behave. Why did someone do that? Why are they clicking there? What is going through their mind and what is motivating them? You need to be curious about those questions.

Discipline because humans naturally stray back to assumption: it’s comfortable and easy. To keep focused on user needs, to effectively be a detective and keep the participants and client engaged in the process, takes gumption and patience.

You’ll need to do it again and again, constantly looking at new ways to get under the users’ skin and try to find out what is going on in their brains, trying not to lead them or influence their actions as much as possible.

How do you feel before running a day of research sessions?

Before a research session for a site I’ve helped improve there is a sense of nervous excitement. What will they think about the product? Will they unearth a gem of an idea that we didn’t think of? Will they get confused and back out of the flow we’ve been designing? There is very little as strange and wonderful as observing a human using something you’ve helped create.

When the session is about a site that’s broken or known to have problems, there is always a curiosity about what we can learn. Are our assumptions right? Have we got the real story? It’s tempting to write old sites off, but they are a living, breathing thing that real users interact with, so there is always insight you can gain.

What helps you prepare for running a research session?

We always allow a good amount of time to curate the session – these things take time. And we carefully plan the structure and script, making sure that if we will not be in attendance, a user can follow the steps themselves in good time. We always do a test or run through to make sure it works, as it can be tricky to find the right balance between adding the complexity we want to test, but not giving them too much to do in the time they have.

What else can a recruiter do to facilitate the research process for the user researcher (e.g. prepping the participant so they don’t feel nervous)?

A lot comes down to the mindset of the user. If they have been briefed in the right way during the recruitment process this helps a lot. Most importantly, they need to be able to test (as much as possible) as someone who actually would use the product or service, so context and relevance to the user is paramount. Making users aware that we’re not looking for the “right” answer and paying them in advance of starting the test means they are at ease and hopefully are more honest.

What are the biggest lessons you have learnt over the years?

User testing is a great tool to get clients on board. Clients meeting with their users in person or seeing them complete a task on their site is a humbling experience. I remember one of our clients who runs an e-commerce site always fighting our need to simplify, and adding in lots of unnecessary messaging or complexity. By showing their users interacting with the site and watching them get confused, we were able to get them onside, make significant changes, and this all had a huge impact on conversions and sales.

The nature of user testing means that part of the motivations and intentions of the user are compromised. You are not going to get a user behave exactly like a real user out in the wild during the testing session. But that doesn’t matter, my view is that any user research is valuable. To have a human interacting with an interface, going through the motions of completing tasks, will always teach you something. It will give you some facts to work with. It will confirm or weaken your assumptions and hopefully take you from the subjective to the objective.

More blogs?
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If you would like to find out more about our in-house participant recruitment service for user testing or market research get in touch on 0117 921 0008 or

jess lewesAbout the author: Jess Lewes is passionate about making research user-centred, and she is a source of knowledge for how to approach the recruitment process to get the best results for your UX research and testing. Jess is available to speak at your event, conference or company workshop.

About People for Research: We recruit participants for UX and usability testing and market research. We work with award winning UX agencies across the UK and partner with a number of end clients leading the way with in-house user experience and insight.

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