[Fireside Chat] The Impact of UX Research on your Business Strategy

This webinar covers the strategic value of UX research and having research professionals with a holistic perspective on the team. The purpose is to demonstrate that the value of UX/CX research extends beyond the tactical benefits of building the best app or device for end-users to complete a specific project into the realm of strategy and business planning and mapping at the enterprise level.

The conversation will include:
•A broad definition of UX research.
•Illustrate why UX research practitioners can make significant contributions to high-level business decision-making.
•"Building the right thing" at the project deliverable level.
•The distinctions between research that informs business strategy and research strategy.

Guest speakers:
Dr. Racine Brown, Manager of User Experience Research and Business Analysis
Matthew Gessler, Director of Digital Experience


Incorporating UX Research to Inform Business Strategy in Tech

In the context of the modern tech sector, user experience (UX) researchers, UX research (UXR) approaches, and methods can greatly improve business strategy.  Though UXR is commonly employed in designing software or devices or as part of the service design process, this practice can also provide essential insight and expertise in formulating business strategy.  UXR leverages a powerful mindset and methodological toolkit to ground strategy in the actual needs of customers or the workforce charged with fulfilling customer needs in UXR oriented toward enterprise software or other technology.  Incorporating UXR as a component of business strategy is analogous to making a roadmap from the deep knowledge of the land rather than a cursory survey or guessing based on a few opinions.

The Value Add of UXR in Business Strategy: Beyond Apps

While the most well-known role for a UXR practitioner is to be embedded and work closely with a design or design and development team, the capability these professionals bring to an enterprise extends far beyond the proximate level of product design.  UXR adds value to business strategy because of the broad knowledge base, varied experiences, and can-do mindset of these experts.

For example, UXR is essential to an adaptation of the design thinking process to service design.  Service design applies design thinking to optimize service by directly improving an employee’s user experience of workflows or processes and indirectly improving customer experience.  Service design may be a strategy component, especially when there is a need to pivot or change the business culture to adapt to changing circumstances or customer needs.

Another vital element UXR perspectives can offer to business strategy is an ethical framework based on a deep empathy for the constituents of a business, be they external customers or internal stakeholders.  For instance, social scientists with long careers in UXR, such as Ken Anderson (Intel) and Sam Ladner (Workday), have been instrumental in ensuring that scientifically based ethical considerations are surfaced in strategy sessions with key corporate leaders.

UXR in discovery research and exploratory research can be crucial in knowing when to adopt an initiative or product a bit, pivot, or scrap an idea entirely in the startup world.  In my previous work in startups, there was one case where I used the research method of netnography, a modified approach to ethnography focused heavily on online interaction. It helped guide the design of a property tech application whose purpose was to help people get to know their neighbors more readily in dense, urban settings.  This study surfaced themes of buying and selling goods, leisure, and real estate on Facebook interest groups geared toward the target market.  These insights helped target the UX design of the application and informed the launch strategy.  Alternatively, I led an exploratory research project that triggered the indefinite parking of an application that a CEO thought was a great idea but about which a sample of people in the target demographic was decidedly unfavorable.  This decision was demotivating in the short term but saved the startup time and money to focus on more important initiatives in the long term.

Incorporating UXR into strategic decision-making enables companies to form a complete picture of the current state of affairs, discern how well a current initiative does or meets user needs, or spot emergent opportunities.  For instance, discovery research is a highly effective way to map out what sort of initiative to embark upon or what product to build.  Similarly, ethnographic research as part of a mixed-methods approach that incorporates quantitative trend data can yield insight into the lived experience of workers or potential customers that can surface blue ocean opportunities.

UXR Approaches to Business Strategy

Two UXR-related approaches positively impact business strategy; these approaches are research strategy and strategic research.  While research strategy is the process of formulating and executing a grand vision of how the research will ensure and amplify enterprise success, strategic research is research conducted to set direction, map out strategic initiatives, or surface new opportunities.  Research strategy and strategic research are complementary modalities of crafting a business strategy that is attuned to the needs of internal and external stakeholders and maximally effective in achieving business goals.

In practice, an effective research strategy entails having a UXR or other type of research practitioner with enough access to senior leadership and decision-making authority to determine the direction and execution of UXR or other types of research that benefit an enterprise.  Areas of responsibility for a research strategist should include:

  • overall vision and mission for the research group or function;
  • research topics;
  • research project plans including, goal, design, and methodology;
  • research team organization and deployment;
  • personnel allocation to projects;
  • training;
  • and having a voice in research budgets.

All of these aspects of research strategy must tie in directly to business goals and objectives.

For strategic research, key considerations involve researching early enough in strategic initiative formulation to positively impact selecting initiatives that balance innovation and business goals with the reality, needs, and pain points of the people who would execute or benefit from said initiatives.  Discovery research is a strong approach to strategic research because it takes place before formulating an initiative or design of a product.  Examples of strategic discovery research include Facebook’s pathfinding program or an ethnography of the “day in the life” of a potential customer base that yields insight and recommendations for a new service or product line.  Strategic research is a key feature in building or doing what has the most value for the enterprise and impact for its customers.

Businesses would employ UXR in research strategy, strategic research, or research strategy and strategic research done in concert in the tech spaces.

Wrapping Up

UXR is a transformative value-add for business strategy and can be employed comprehensively and flexibly to realize the grand vision and achieve business goals.

Radiant Digital’s growing UXR practice is ready to transform your business strategy with keen insights and a deep understanding of people.  We are committed to guiding a winning corporate strategy in the ever-changing digital economy.

[Webinar] Using UX Research to Optimize Software Design


This webinar aims to showcase the added value of user experience research (UXR) in the design and development process. Topics covered include why software product teams should incorporate UXR, how UX researchers fit into user experience design (UXD) teams and flows, and types of UXR.

Our guest speaker, Dr. Racine Marcus Brown, is a UX researcher and research manager at Radiant Digital. In addition to leading and training UX researchers and business analysts, he conducts UX research on enterprise software for corporate clients and institutions of higher learning. Racine also leverages his scientific expertise to facilitate grant application reviews and other contract work for Federal agencies. He is an applied anthropologist by training, with a Ph.D. from the University of South Florida. His experience includes work in the trust-tech and healthcare spaces.

The Value of a Mixed-Methods Approach to UX Research

While some user experience research (UXR) problems can be solved using one research method, others benefit from mixed-methods. In this approach, the data collected via one method complement the data collected via another method to provide a more comprehensive picture of customer or user needs.  A mixed-methods design uses the best combination of data collection and analysis methods to answer a complex research question.  These methods can be qualitative, quantitative, or a mix of both qualitative and quantitative methods.  The key thing that distinguishes a mixed-methods approach from a random combination of research methods is that each method's data can be triangulated with data from the other methods to fill any gaps that one method would have. Part of the reason mixed-methods approaches are not more common in UXR, or commercial research generally for that matter, is that mix-methods research is hard to do and can yield muddled insights if not done well.  Even so, the insights gleaned and improvement to product or experience is worth the time and effort in many cases.  The rest of this article highlights some case studies from my own research experience and then elucidates the value of mixed-methods approaches to solving UX and other business problems.

Case Studies

The following case studies illustrate how a mixed-methods research design can improve the experience of a service, technology, or program for its target audience.

Dietary Health Service Design Project in Honduras

Several years ago, I spent a year working in two communities in Roatán, Islas de la Bahia (Bay Islands), Honduras, on a service design project to improve access to food and dietary health for residents.  The research design for addressing this problem blended an ethnographic methodology. It included immersive observation, semi-structured interviews, and contextual inquiry with quantitative data from a dietary diversity survey I created, a validated food insecurity survey, and body measurements such as height, weight, and skinfolds.  This design triangulated quantitative data about food access and obesity with qualitative data about local people's lived experience, mainly how they made a living and obtained food.  With this blended approach, I was able to complement the extent of food insecurity and obesity in the two communities with rich narrative stories about how people made a living and the challenges they faced.  Such a comprehensive picture would not have been possible using only qualitative or quantitative methods.  I found that obesity was highly prevalent in both communities and that steady jobs in tourism were more stable and better paying than small-scale enterprises that depended on tourists' tips. Based on these findings, I crafted recommendations to local leaders for programs that would make residents more competitive for tourism jobs and also programs that would give more reliable access to healthy foods for local households.

Water Quality Service Design Project in Costa Rica

For a service design project in the Monteverde Zone in Costa Rica, the team I was part of used a mixed-methods design to assess local perceptions of surface water quality in the local environment.  The team used a demographic survey that included questions about perceptions of stream water quality and everyday pollutants, a semi-structured interview guide that allowed a smaller sample of respondents to delve into their perceptions of water quality and common pollutants more deeply, and detailed notes and photographs from immersive observations of streams in the area, the local water treatment plant, and a local community meeting.  This approach allowed the team to combine thick data about water quality problems from interviews, insights from a survey about the general state of water quality and everyday pollutants, and vivid images of streams burdened with laundry detergent that had been flushed out of homes directly into the waterways.  This project led to further research into water pollution and recommendations for improving surface water quality.

Tech Startup UXR Project

Of course, mixed-methods designs are a powerful way to answer research questions in the tech space.  At Javelyn Technology, the team used interviews, surveys, and netnography in a discovery research project to conceptualize and inform the design of a property-tech application intended to help residents of large apartment complexes get to know their neighbors better.  The team conducted the semi-structured interviews and surveys in the UK's original target market, with the in-depth interview responses from a small number of respondents being used to refine the survey to uncover better local perceptions of trust and social capital that were crucial in the initial concept of the application.  Later, when the company decided it would launch an MVP in a few apartment buildings catering to expatriate professionals from North America and Western Europe, the research team conducted a netnography, an ethnographic study adapted specifically to observing online interaction.  In this case, we watched the feed of a few Dubai expatriate Facebook groups.  Analysis of images and text from these feeds surfaced critical themes of interest to members of the expatriate groups yielded insights that were instrumental in creating features for the application.  For this project, a mixed-methods approach allowed us to gain a more comprehensive understanding of potential users of the product and to pivot to a slightly different user group to adjust to evolving business needs.

Adapting Mixed Methods to UXR

While UXR projects have different time and budget constraints than other research types such as market research, program evaluations, or academic research, a mixed-methods approach to addressing business and research problems can be adapted to UXR projects.  In some cases, the greater speed and lower cost of using only one method to collect user data might make more sense for a project. Still, often there is significant added value in collecting complementary data by triangulating multiple methods.  Mixed-methods approaches can produce comprehensive and accurate insights when one method's weaknesses are mitigated by another method or methods' strengths.  The specific considerations for UXR mean that methods may need to be adjusted from their original research context and tailored to time and budget constraints.  For instance, ethnographic designs typically include fewer primary respondents and much shorter immersive observation sessions than market research or academic ethnography.  In UXR, data collection via the different methods is often done in parallel in one data collection session. A contextual inquiry may combine immersive observations, a semi-structured interview about the current state of the workflow, time on task, and possibly the number of clicks and a hover heat map.  A usability test may incorporate a semi-structured interview about user needs and time on task metrics.  It is possible that a research design to aid in the development of a digital product may incorporate a usability test of a prototype and then a system usability scale (SUS) assessment to gain a basic understanding of user perceptions on a larger scale, and web analytics to assess potential friction points through click analytics, hover analytics, or drop-offs.

Wrapping Up

For some business problems, a mixed-methods approach to UXR is a substantial value add.  Mixed-methods research can yield more profound and more comprehensive findings that lead to better design recommendations in a competitive timeframe.  Radiant has deep expertise in mixed-methods research designs.  Reach out for a UXR plan to inform your business strategy today!

Adapting to Digital Ethnography in Virtual UX Research

While traditional approaches to user experience (UX) and customer experience (CX) research prioritize being present in the same location as the respondent, there are situations where in-person research is not feasible, such as during a global pandemic.  Ethnography is a powerful, in-depth research method to capture rich insights about the human experience, including experience as a customer or tech user.  Ethnographers traditionally collect data in person, often over extended periods. As with other UX research (UXR) methods, modern life challenges have accelerated virtual modalities in ethnography.  It is essential to understand a bit about this methodology's historical context to understand both the power of ethnography to generate useful insight and the challenges of employing it in a business setting.  The rest of this article covers ethnography’s historical background in academic research, traditional adaptations of ethnography to business settings, and the challenges and benefits of digital transformations of ethnographic methods.

A Very Brief History of Ethnography

Though many people use the word ethnography to describe research methods, a traditional ethnography is a research product; it is a story or set of stories about a culture or community produced through various research methods.  What makes ethnographies distinct from other types of research reports is that they are so rich in narrative that good ones read almost like a short story or novella rather than a typical research report.  In one of the first ethnographies, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Malinowski interweaves thorough scientific descriptions of culture in the Trobriand Islands with engaging stories of community members' trade journeys. Keith Basso uses short morality tales from the Apache community to illustrate user accounts' cultural traits to teach young people how to be good community members. In more recent years, social justice scholars such as Paul Farmer and Angela Stuesse have done applied ethnographies that addressed the overlap of economic hardship and poor health complementing statistical findings with engaging stories about community members.

The research methods used to produce an ethnography vary by project but usually include observation, semi-structured interviews, and experiential learning of a process. Observations are a vital tool for ethnography as they are for contextual inquiry. Detailed observation of a processor “day in the life” with video recording and a notetaker to augment recording capabilities provides a rich, first-hand understanding of an event or process.   The key difference in using observation as a data collection method for ethnography versus contextual inquiry is that the former usually takes a broader context and lasts longer. In contrast, observations for contextual investigations are more focused on a specific workflow or process.  Semi-structured interviews entail set questions with open-ended responses. This method focuses data collection on themes of interest to the researcher. Still, it allows the respondent to respond freely in their own words and not be bound to answer choices that may or may not be relevant to lived experience.  Experiential learning complements these other methods by allowing the research to practice a task or different process under an expert's tutelage.  For any of these methods, good notetaking (preferably by a second researcher), video, recording, or both is essential to create detailed summaries of workflows, events, processes, or other phenomena for later qualitative analysis.

Enter Business Ethnography

The early ethnography applications for academic, social science and public benefit research may make this approach seem ill-suited to business research. Ethnography has been successfully used to address a broad array of business problems, including business strategy, organizational development and change, market research, and discovery research in UXR and CXR. Andrea Simon has used ethnographic methods to drive innovative “blue ocean” strategies for businesses in various sectors such as construction, healthcare, and government. Elisabeth Briody has used ethnographic methods to drive organizational development and transformation for several clients, including General Motors. ReD Associates is well-known for deep-dive ethnographic research that helps clients tailor marketing efforts to their customers. Sam Ladner pioneered using ethnography adapted for UXR to drive excellent product design and research strategy in high-value tech companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Workday.  These are just a few examples of social scientists who have successfully adapted traditional ethnographic methods to solving business problems.  While the conventional wisdom on business ethnography says that data collection is best done in person, there is a growing body of ethnography collected in digital spaces and focused on the digital world.

Digital Ethnography

Digital ethnography is a broad methodological umbrella that encompasses both video links between researcher and respondent(s) in real-time and asynchronous data collection from platforms and websites. Significant forms of digital ethnography include cultural probes, virtual tours, and netnography.  Each form has its limitations, but these modes of doing ethnography also represent powerful innovations in UXR, particularly during a global pandemic or other situation that makes in-person data collection unfeasible.  Digital ethnographic methods are beneficial for discovery or exploratory research for a deep dive into what users or customers need before or at the design process's outset.

Cultural Probes

Cultural probes, also known as diary studies, involve the respondent's data collection as they go about daily work activities.  The researcher then reads, codes, and analyzes these data for patterns relevant to the product design or other business project in which the researcher is engaged.  The mode of data collection for cultural probes is flexible. The respondent may write down reflections, collect artifacts from their activities (e.g., a document, email, lunch menu), or take photographs (these can be device agnostic, camera, phone, or tablet are proper photography tools this case).  Once the respondent finishes data collection over the agreed time, the research team then reads or views the pieces of data and looks for patterns.  Once a couple of team members have coded the data, and the team has built a consensus on coding divergences, the research team can have confidence in the themes that emerge from the diary entries, artifacts, or photos.  This approach's key benefit is that it makes it possible to glean a great deal of context about workflows and about other types of activities (e.g., lunch with colleagues) that may influence workflows or even what work is to be done.  Because the respondent may not think of something that might be important to the business problem, it is good to use cultural probes in concert with another method like semi-structured interviews.

Virtual Tours

Another approach to virtual ethnography that relies heavily on visual data is the virtual tour.  Cultural probes are driven by the respondent writing about or photographing processes over several days. A virtual tour is when the respondent shows the researcher(s) a work setting or process via a recorded video link.  Virtual tours may be used for contextual inquiries as well as ethnographies.  While specific virtual tour methods may vary and encompass methods such as the 3D walking tour or the 360º tour, the common thread is a respondent guiding the researcher or research team through a setting, workflow, process, or other events.  With the combination of video recording in the real-time and conversational description from the respondent, virtual tours combine cultural probes' visual data strengths with the respondent’s ability to provide context with words present in a semi-structured interview.  Unlike a cultural probe, a virtual tour tends to be shorter in duration; a cultural probe may collect data off and on for several days, but a virtual tour tends to be capped at an hour or two.  Due to the shorter duration, a virtual tour may not capture the day-to-day variation that a cultural probe or netnography would. It is best to either do a series of virtual tours of the same organization or combine virtual tours with other research methods to mitigate this shortcoming.


Complementary to cultural probes and virtual tours with an active respondent is the virtual ethnographic method of netnography, which does not need an active respondent or asynchronous video tour or record. Netnography is an ethnographic method that focuses specifically on online interactions and communities.  The researcher may collect data via chat interactions or arranged interviews with participants or by combing platform feeds and performing a careful analysis of the text and images to find themes and patterns.  For instance, if a research team is trying to find out about a workflow or process, it might be useful to conduct a netnography of professional groups. Or interest groups on social media platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or even Slack channels involve UXR for enterprise software.

In one case study of a UXR project I did for a previous startup client, I conducted a netnography to explore the market-need for a property-tech application purporting to help people build trust and relationships with their neighbors in dense urban areas. The management team wanted to launch the app within a month on a pilot site in Dubai's target market.  When this tight deadline was given to the research team, we had to rapidly adjust our research plan to eliminate the semi-structured interviews we were planning to do and focus on observations of Facebook interest groups that closely matched the target market.  Gleaning insights from the Facebook group data involved doing a detailed reading, coding, and analysis of excerpts from the group feeds. We collected enough data in a few weeks to give reliable recommendations about the application's key features even without interviews.

Courtesy of https://racinemarcusbrown.crevado.com/

As with the other digital ethnography approaches addressed in this article, it is not always possible to know what one is missing by doing just an observation-based netnography.  The case study above involved samples from the feed, not the entire feed.  Incorporating interviews into a netnography or using netnography in concert with other UXR methods such as contextual inquiry are ways to mitigate these deficiencies.

Challenges of Digital Ethnography

Regardless of the specific methods used, digital ethnography presents some common challenges relative to ethnographies that incorporate in-person data collection.  Limited perspective and online communication friction are two critical challenges.

Limited perspective: For any of the three approaches described above, the researcher’s view is limited to what the respondent thinks is essential or chooses to show.  An in-person observation session gives the researcher or research team much more latitude on observing and recording potentially crucial data for later analysis.  It is difficult to know what is occurring off-camera, and therefore difficult to know if something important is being missed.

Online communication friction: As with the Zoom meetings with which so many have become familiar in the last year, remote data collection makes rapport building with a respondent harder and more awkward than it would be in-person.  Interruptions, talk-overs, and technical difficulties happen in research sessions as they do in business meetings. Video conferencing and device fatigue may also be a problem for researchers and respondents alike.

Power of Digital Ethnography

Despite these challenges, digital ethnography is a powerful tool for UXR and other types of business research.  The main benefits are cost, safety, and flexibility.

Cost: The most apparent benefit to doing digital UXR is cost.  A business stands to save substantial amounts of time and money by researching the web compared to the travel, equipment, and supplies needed to research a person.  This cost and time savings means that it is possible to research organizations or users via digital ethnography that it would not be feasible to do in-person.

Safety: Another significant benefit to digital ethnography and other digital forms of UXR is that they are safer and more feasible to do during the current COVID-19 pandemic or any future pandemic that dictates social distancing and remote work.

Flexibility: A more subtle benefit of digital ethnography is its flexibility to the respondent and the researcher.  Data collection for a cultural probe can be accomplished over multiple days, focused on events the respondent thinks are most relevant, and done in a manner that fits the respondent’s schedule.  A virtual tour requires synchronization between researcher and respondent but takes less logistical coordination and time than an in-person ethnographic data collection session.  A netnography affords excellent flexibility to the researcher, as all or part of data collection may be asynchronous.  Even a semi-structured interview may be accomplished via asynchronous questions and responses through a portal.

Wrapping Up

Though the traditional conventional wisdom holds that in-person data collection is superior in every way to virtual data collection, the current business reality has shown that digital ethnography can be a powerful tool in a UX researcher’s toolkit. The current crisis has spurred innovation and widespread adoption of digital ethnography to solve business problems.

Radiant Digital has strong digital ethnography expertise. We can uncover insights and transform business strategy, product lines, and more for any size or type of enterprise, from Fortune 500 companies to startups to government agencies.

Connect with us for customized digital ethnography plans today!

Using UX Research to Optimize Software Design

In recent years, the concept of user experience (UX) has become more prominent in the design and development of software, hardware, and other innovative technology. The essence of UX is putting the needs and perspectives of the people who would most likely use the technology front and center in the design and development process. The two critical components to the UX concept are user experience design (UXD) and user experience research (UXR). UXD is relatively familiar to many tech professionals, as it employs rapid iteration concepts such as design thinking to design interfaces and other aspects of technology with empathy and flexibility. This post focuses on UXR, a powerful practice for informing and shaping designs and prototypes that build the right thing for target users. UXR is the process of researching to understand what users or potential users of technology need to do work, complete a transaction, or otherwise have a worthwhile experience using a website, platform, app, or another type of technology. The essence of UXR is gathering data and synthesizing it to improve usability.

UXR plays a vital role in ensuring that the UXD process produces a very attuned design to the actual customer or user needs. It enriches the design process by incorporating user context; it’s not just a great idea about what people need that was formulated solely in a design studio or lab. UXR dramatically increases the chance that the technology to be built will solve a significant problem rather than just bringing someone’s “brilliant idea” to fruition. A UX approach that incorporates research saves targeted end-users the headache of a non-user-friendly technology and protects the company or agency from using the technology to get work done from wasting substantial sums of money.

Another critical consideration of UXR is its origins. UXR as a practice was mainly developed by master’s degree and Ph.D. qualified social scientists with extensive backgrounds in studying human behavior and applying insights to the development and improvement of products and programs. Early pioneers of this work include anthropologist Ken Anderson and sociologist Sam Lander. Early adopters of UXR as part of a strategy and UXD include tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Instagram, and Amazon.

Let's delve deeper into UXR's essential concepts that make a software designer's life easier.

Understanding a Typical UX Research and Design Flow

If one uses the design thinking framework as pictured below, UXR is typically the leading activity during the understanding phase (empathize and define) and the materialize phase (test). The graphic's circular shape indicates that the understanding phase happens at the beginning of the design cycle of a new product or the birth of a redesign or reiteration. The understanding phase focuses on formative or exploratory research to surface pain points or needs. The design cycle's testing portion entails more summative research to test a design prototype's usability and intuitiveness. Some testing designs incorporate the concept of “user delight” to surface how potential users of a technology subjectively perceive or feel about the prototype. UXR can also be used before a design cycle to surface deep-seated needs and make concept recommendations for new products that have not previously been conceptualized by other members of the UX or leadership teams.

To fully understand the value of UXR, it is helpful first to understand the importance of research methods and broad types of UXR designs. Research methods fall into two major categories, quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative methods are heavy on numerical output and are valid for answering questions about the degree to which something occurs or is a problem. Familiar examples include surveys and statistics. Qualitative methods are heavy on observational and text data. They are well suited to answering “why” questions and gleaning rich data about a small sample of respondents' particular experiences. While most methods used in UXR are qualitative, quantitative methods do come into play as well. These methods fit in a research design continuum of discovery, formative, and summative research designs.

Types of UXR Designs

Discovery Research: This method delves deeper into discovering the hidden needs and pain-points of users. Discovery research is a pathfinding process that helps receive information to conceptualize a new digital experience or other technology. So, discovery research is generally conducted before starting the design cycle to inform a company what technology to design and develop to best meet customer needs. One might say discovery research sits at the intersection of strategy and design.

It is similar to formative exploratory research but a little further upstream of the design process. For instance, at Javelyn Technology, the team conducted pathfinding research to assess the level of and need for trust in hyperlocal areas of London before starting design work on a property tech application to facilitate building trust between near neighbors. The team fleshed out the concept before getting wrapped up in complex design concepts.

Methods for discovery research include ethnographic methods such as immersive observation, contextual inquiry, workshops, and semi-structured interviews.

Ethnographic observation entails extensive and detailed observation of a workflow and how it fits the respondent's daily life. Ethnographic research might spend several hours with a respondent to understand the broader context, often over several days. Observations are usually combined with an informal or semi-structured interview. Data recording is often completed via a combination of very detailed notes and video or audio recording. While ethnographic methods are time-intensive, they can yield rich data on a current workflow's entire context and pay substantial dividends in designing the right thing.

Contextual inquiry is a modified form of ethnographic research that focuses on understanding the context and process of a specific workflow in most contextual inquiry designs. The researcher observes a process from start to finish and encourages the respondent to “think aloud” and explain each step as it is being completed. Often, the session ends with a short semi-structured interview about the respondent’s overall impressions of the process, pain points, etc. Contextual inquiry is a bit more focused than and not quite as time-intensive as traditional ethnography and yields targeted yet rich insights about current workflows and processes.

Workshops are similar to focus groups in that they elicit data from a group but are more participatory than focus groups or interviews. The format can vary, and workshops can include brainstorming, journey mapping, and subject matter expert panels (SME panels). Usually, the workshop facilitator frames the topic to explore and breaks the participants into small groups to do an immersive activity related to the subject and then share a summary of the movement with the larger groups. Insights are synthesized and shared out with the group at the end of the workshop.

Semi-structured interviews are interviews with a pre-determined set of questions with open-ended answers by the respondent. This method is less time-consuming than the ethnographic methods or workshops but still yields rich data about respondents' specific experiences. Though it is not feasible to attain large enough sample sizes for robust statistical analysis, semi-structured interviews can produce more precise data than surveys because respondents are not limited to a limited set of answer choices. It is less likely the respondent will respond that it is the “best fit” but still a poor reflection of the reality as may sometimes happen in surveys.

While discovery research is not an ideal fit for Agile product design and development cycles, it can be a substantial value add in strategy and direction when conducted ahead of current iterations or program increments (PI). Think of discovery research teams as the scouts making maps that give Agile teams the best way forward.

Exploratory/Formative Research: Formative research designs are most useful in understanding (empathize and define) the design thinking process phase at the beginning of the design or redesign process. A UXR team typically conducts formative research when a broad idea of new technology or redesign has been conceptualized, perhaps through discovery research. Still, the details have yet to be fleshed out. Formative research can help optimize the design of a technology concept and may sometimes build a case for pivoting to something else if the idea does not demonstrate the potential to meet actual user needs.  Unlike discovery research, formative research can fit reasonably well into Agile product cycles such as iterations or PIs.

Methods conducive to formative research include contextual inquiry, semi-structured interviews, and workshops. Ethnographic research designs to work in the exploratory analysis but would need modification from traditional ethnographic designs. In some instances, a System Usability Scale (SUS) may be used to assess a current application's usability the new application is meant to replace. Still, this method is more commonly used in summative research.

Formative research designs are beneficial for assessing user needs and pain points related to a technology concept and can be used quickly.

Summative Research: Summative research designs are most useful in the materialize (test) phase of the design cycle. Summative research is used to evaluate how usable, intuitive, and desirable a technology or product is and is complementary to formative research. This phase of UXR is beneficial in reiterating a prototype to be more usable and better meet user needs.

Methods used in summative research include usability testing, A/B testing, heuristic evaluations, SME panels SUS, and web analytics.

Usability testing is when a researcher(s) asks a test user to perform a series of tasks and to “think aloud,” describing the process as it is occurring. It is a complementary method to contextual inquiry; where the former way fleshes out strong points and pain points in a current application or process, the latter does so for a new prototype. While the researcher describes the purpose of the exercise and outlines what tasks are to be performed, he or she politely minimizes the respondent's help. This technique is essential for surfacing usability problems or ambiguity in the user interface (UI). In some cases, semi-structured interview questions about perceptions may be embedded in the usability test task scenarios. In some instances, tasks may be timed from start to completion.

A/B testing is a type of usability testing where respondents can compare two different versions of a webpage. This method is advantageous in a redesign process. In addition to typical variables in a usability test, an A/B test can measure the difference in time on task, sales, and hover time without clicking.

A heuristic evaluation is where an expert uses “rules of thumb” on an established heuristic to assess an application or web page's usability. While this method yields a concise evaluation from an expert, it is somewhat more subjective than other methods. It is vital to ensure that the right expert is consulted and that the process is a strong fit for the overall research design.

SME panels are modified focus groups in which SME’s review a prototype with a researcher and give feedback based on their impressions. This method has less setup time than a usability test. It can be employed when the prototype is still in the wireframe stage and not functional to the minimum viable product (MVP) level. SME panels can reveal hidden but vital insights about a prototype gel with current user needs, workflows, and conceptual models of what is needed. A limitation of SME panels is that SMEs’ biases in favor of an existing application or technology may color their perceptions of the prototype. SME’s may focus on what they are comfortable with and what they want, rather than on underlying needs. Fixation on the status quo or superficial wants may limit innovation in optimally meeting the underlying conditions.

These qualitative methods can be complemented with quantitative methods such as SUS and web analytics. SUS is a validated metric with five positive UX attributes and five negative UX attributes on a Likert scale. It does not provide the depth of insight that qualitative UXR methods do, but it can be administered across a much larger sample and thus is generalizable. SUS can be rapidly deployed to yield a snapshot of people’s perceptions of a web page's usability or application. Web analytics uses the AI/ML power of an analytics platform such as SQL or Google Analytics to discover usage patterns in a live platform or application. Examples of UX insights that may be gleaned from analytics include the number of unique visitors, time on screens, and drop-off frequency and location.

Summative research approaches are vital for testing technology prototypes and deployments to assess usability and desirability.

The graphic below shows the benefits of formative and summative research. And where in the design and development process, these techniques are most productively employed.

Building the Right Thing with UX Research

Deep Knowledge about People - UX researchers are trained to be good listeners and observers. They obtain in-depth knowledge about people, what they do, and what they need professionally. Whether they are trained in research methods through UXR training programs or while obtaining advanced social science degrees, UX researchers have thorough training in highly effective research methods. Experienced UX researchers can translate UXR data into insights that drive high-impact design concepts and decisions.

Design Integration - Researchers can integrate with design teams and adapt the research-design-research/test process to an agile design cycle. Designers may assist with research sessions to understand the process and gain insights from users. Researchers can help with brainstorming activities, workshops, journey maps, and other design thinking exercises.

Adaptability in Agile Environments - Integrating UX researchers into agile teams of designers and developers allows for rapid and flexible prototype iteration and refinement. UXR ensures that designs meet actual user needs and minimizes rework.

Meeting Users Where They Are - Integrating UXR in the design and development processes ensures that digital experiences are delivered to users where they are. It helps carry users along in the innovation journey rather than putting them in unfamiliar or uncomfortable territory.

Wrapping up

UXR empowers digital innovation while meeting actual user needs in a highly usable and relatable manner. It’s a rapidly growing and transformational area in the technology landscape for start-ups, flagship tech companies, and legacy enterprises.

Radiant Digital helps organizations check all the boxes in enterprise software design with competitive UX Research services. We focus on research that guides a winning corporate strategy in the new digital economy.

 Connect with us for customized UX Research plans today!

Meeting end-users where they are through Contextual Inquiry

Given the overarching function of user experience research (UXR) in bringing end-users' needs to design conversations, a research method based on direct observation of current workflows offers a powerful way of understanding those needs. Contextual inquiry is such a method; it involves direct observations of and conversations about workflows with subject matter experts or other workers who perform the work that a product is designed to improve. The purpose of a contextual inquiry is to understand how a process or workflow works “in the field.” Rather than how it is supposed or believed to work by rule-makers.  Contextual inquiry differs from the standard usability test. The researcher observes and asks the participant to talk through existing processes rather than testing the intuitiveness of processes or usability of features.  Contextual inquiry and usability testing are complementary, with the former being used before or at the beginning of the design process. The latter is used well in the design process when a prototype has been developed.

Bubble graph comparing contextual inquiry to other research methods.

When to Conduct Contextual Inquiry?

Because contextual inquiry is useful for exposing pain points and needs in current processes, it is a beneficial method to employ at the beginning of a project's design phase or even in a pathfinding research project.  Incorporating contextual inquiry at the beginning of the design phase is very useful in refining an existing idea or concept to ensure it will help its intended users or customer base.  A pathfinding project occurs when research is conducted earlier in the project, and the findings on user needs and pain points are used to decide what to build at the concept level.  For example, a company wanting to make a parking app for couriers might use contextual inquiry to dial in the idea to be optimally suited for parking needs.  Alternatively, the company could do pathfinding research that incorporated contextual inquiry into exploring how documents and other essential things move between its client and their customers. Then, use the findings on needs and pain points to decide if the company should build a parking app or an app that makes electronic document transfer easier, eliminating the need for parking of paying couriers mileage.

In addition to using contextual inquiry at the beginning of or before the design phase, a UX or CX team can incorporate it into UXR for a redesign project.  The unit can discover the pain points of using the current version of an application, platform, or other product as part of the next iteration process.

Benefits of Contextual Inquiry 

The specific benefits of incorporating contextual inquiry into a research plan include the level of detail in the data (thick data), a people-centered approach, and its high-quality insights on how workflows or processes work in real settings.

Thick Data: Contextual inquiry yields data with fine-grained detail for two reasons.  First, the qualitative nature of the observation and interview data gleaned from contextual inquiry means that the researcher can dive deeper into each participant's unique experience rather than fit that experience onto limited answer choices in a survey.  Second, contextual inquiry incorporates direct observation of a work setting and process means that the research findings are more profound and more richly informed by context.

People-centered: The need for empathy and a partnership model for a contextual inquiry to work assures that it centers the researcher on the people who are the target audience of technology rather than on the proposed technology itself.  This research method's nature means that researchers are thoroughly grounded in potential users' full context and will keep their needs front and center when they link back with the product team.

Real Settings: The “in the wild” field setting of contextual inquiry ensures that it captures how things are done, rather than how they are supposed to be done according to executives’ understanding or SOP.  Think of a contextual inquiry as equivalent to getting to know a nature park or city by actually walking around and exploring, not assuming one knows the place simply because one reviewed the map.

How to Conduct Contextual Inquiries

At a basic level, one conducts a contextual inquiry by observing a process from start to finish and concurrently talking about it with the person who uses the process.  Kim Salazar from the Nielsen Norman group outlines a “master and apprentice” model. The SME or other potential user is the master with in-depth process knowledge who instructs the researcher-as-apprentice through showing and talking about the process.  Usually, the contextual inquiry takes a “think aloud” approach, where the participant describes each step of the process while doing.  The researcher asks questions along the way and may prompt with reminders to think aloud as needed.  The UXR session may include a concluding interview after the process is done to ask about the overall attitude toward the current process and surface perceived pain points that may not be apparent from observation. Another variant involves a more passive approach of quietly observing the process and holding the interview questions until after the procedure is concluded.  If possible, it is better to make a contextual inquiry as a team of two.  The first researcher acts as the moderator and runs the session.  The second researcher acts as a note-taker, and the digital recorder troubleshoots issues and asks follow-up questions if need be.  Methods of turning the observations and dialogue into data include writing detailed notes, video recording, still photos, or another device if appropriate.

Example of a contextual inquiry session.

Principles for Conducting a Contextual Inquiry

During a contextual inquiry session, it is essential to keep four principles in mind.  These principles are context, partnership, mutual interpretation, and focus.

Context: As the name implies, the context of the workflow is critical to the contextual inquiry.  It is imperative to collect data in the site where the work is done, not in a lab.  The ideal approach is for the researcher to travel to the site and be physically present during the UXR session.  If physical presence is not possible, then virtual presence may substitute via screen share or a virtual tour (more on these approaches later); it is also possible in some cases to collect data via sensors to complement the interview portion.

Partnership: The ideal partnership between researcher and participant stands in contrast to more traditional data collection methods such as surveys.  Instead of the researcher having complete control of an artificial situation where the participant is treated as a mere datapoint without agency, the researcher must engage the participant in a mutual learning and sharing experience.  The researcher should be flexible and receptive to hearing what the participant has to say, even if it is not strictly according to the interview guide's script.

Mutual Interpretation:  The researcher should develop a shared interpretation of the workflow or process with the participant.  This is where “think aloud” and the conversational aspect of the method takes on great importance.  A researcher should also periodically interpret what the participant says back to the participant to ensure mutual understanding.  Remember, the participant is the expert on the workflow.

Focus: the researcher should have a clear idea of the project's overall goal and what research questions or problems need to be answered or solved to ensure that the findings are relevant.

Anatomy of a Contextual Inquiry Session

A contextual inquiry session has three parts, the introduction, the interview itself, and the wrap-up.

Introduction:  The introduction is where the moderator introduces the research team, describes the session's purpose, and outlines what information they hope to glean from the session.  It is best to start by thanking the participant for taking the time to share knowledge about the workflow.  The moderator should also give the participant a chance to ask questions before launching into the next phase.  The introduction is key to building rapport between the researcher and the participant.  It should conclude with a transition that describes the interview stages and what the researcher will do or ask for next.

Interview:  Starting with a brief instruction to show the research team the process and think aloud while the moderator asks the participant to do a “walk through” of the typical workflow of interest.   The moderator should ask questions about any step that they do not understand and may also give gentle reminders to think aloud if the participant forgets.  After the process is completed, the interview may conclude with questions about the participant’s overall impression of the process, particularly pain points.  The interview complements the observation phase by surfacing thoughts or emotions that may not be apparent in the observation phase.  In all phases, the researcher(s) should do more listening than talking.  Before proceeding to the wrap-up, give a broad-brush summary of the whole process or the process's purpose to ensure mutual understanding.

Wrap Up: This phase starts by informing the participant that the interview is concluded and the session is coming to a close.  This is the time to thank the participant once again for taking the time to share insights and build a better product.  It may be appropriate to ask if the research team may contact the participant for future sessions.  In B2C projects where there is an incentive for participation, be sure to give it to the participant or provide the information on how to redeem it.

Contextual Inquiry as Part of a Mixed Methodology

Depending on the business goal and research problem, the contextual inquiry may be used as a stand-alone method or as part of a broader mixed methods approach.  Examples of contextual inquiry in mixed methodology include:

  • Embed contextual inquiry in a broader ethnography of a workplace, working group, or organization.
  • Complement data on app usability from the system usability scale (SUS) with a contextual inquiry of a typical “day in the life” of a workflow or process.

Contextual inquiry adds rich data about user experience to data streams from other qualitative UXR methods and quantitative data on overall trends.

Venn diagram of how Contextual Inquiry fits into UXR Methodology.

Considerations for making Contextual Inquiry in an Enterprise Setting

While contextual inquiry in a B2C, a customer-facing context may be used to build or redesign a product to market to external customers to improve workflows. The specific goal of contextual inquiry for enterprise software or other internally oriented project is to enhance the process of serving external customers.  Making contextual inquiry in an enterprise setting involves special considerations, including an operational focus, the importance of internal stakeholders, the importance of getting buy-in from the right people, and the tyranny of time.

Operational Focus:  The project for which contextual inquiry is used to collect data could be focused on a wide array of work processes beyond marketing and sales, including production, operations, logistics, or administration workflows.  The final solution to the business problem might have commonalities with other projects. It will still be unique to a specific enterprise's business problems, unlike a customer-facing solution, which may be mass-deployed across many external customers.

Internal Stakeholders:  A UXR project in an enterprise setting may involve many internal stakeholders, including executives, functional team leads, and individual contributors.  These stakeholders may be concentrated in one active area or vertical or spread across several.  It is crucial to identify how the proposed technology may meet or conflict with each group's needs.  Identifying pertinent stakeholders and mapping them to the project's overall business goal is vital to generating buy-in for the project and contextual inquiry from critical stakeholders.

Buy-in:  One advantage of doing UXR for an internal enterprise client is that the recruitment effort is contained to a more limited subset of people.  A corollary to this statement is that buy-in from key stakeholders is crucial to a successful contextual inquiry.  Suppose an executive or functional leader does not see the value in the method or the research. In that case, it will be tough to get the necessary signoffs and introductions to get access to relevant SMEs to participate in research.  Unlike recruitment in the general population, if crucial stakeholders say no, there is no-one else you can ask to participate in research.

Tyranny of Time:  A major blocker to making contextual inquiry in an enterprise setting is the tyranny of time.  Everyone is busy, and participating in research takes away from participants’ performance of actual work duties.  Contextual inquiry takes logistical time and effort to set up and often needs more time for data collection than filling out a SUS or even semi-structured interviews.  It is vital to make a case for the added value of contextual inquiry to justify the time needed to do it well.

Adapting Contextual Inquiry to the Covid-19 Pandemic

The current global COVID-19 pandemic and the concomitant need for social-distancing make traditional, in-person contextual inquiry is difficult or impossible to do.  While this situation is a significant UXR blocker, it also presents an opportunity to learn about and experiment with digital methods of contextual inquiry, e.g., video conferencing apps like Zoom, WebEx, BlueJeans, etc.  Though video conferencing makes it difficult to perceive analog, physical parts of workflows, it works well for focusing on digital steps and movements such as screens displayed, clicks, and mouse hovers.  It is still possible for participants to “think aloud” and talk about the research team through what they are doing.

Due to the virtual nature of UXR in the current situation, screen-sharing of processes and workflows has become significant.  There is an opportunity to focus on the user journey through a workflow for online work processes.  Video conferencing software also provides a chance to obtain high-quality video recordings of screens during work processes.

In some cases, screen-share data can be complemented with a virtual tour of a workspace. In which the participant turns his or her camera on and records while taking a workspace walkthrough.  A virtual tour is beneficial in the following situations:

  • The workflow involves physical and digital processes.
  • The participants use multiple devices or screens to complete the tasks.
  • Any other situation where the physical setting or other aspects of participant surroundings provide useful context to the workflow.

Wrapping up

Contextual inquiry is a powerful method in a UXR toolkit to ensure a product team builds the right thing to meet users’ needs, thus maximizing the value proposition of the product being designed.  One might think of UXR as shaping the headwaters of a river to go in the desired direction, with the successive stretches of the river being design, development, testing, and deployment.  Even in an Agile environment, employing research early often ensures that each iteration improves the technology to be made.  Contextual inquiry is a very effective method for optimizing the impact of UXR.

Radiant Digital has used contextual inquiry effectively on leading digital products and solutions.

Call us to learn how you could apply this during your next UX project.