User research leads to a richer understanding of the factors controlling the quality of user interactions with products, documents, systems, environments, and other people. A sample of our research methods follows.
Direct observation is frequently the key to fully understanding user needs and preferences pertaining to a new product, system, or service.
For example, we might ride along in cruisers to learn how police use their communication gear. Or, we might observe surgical procedures to learn how anesthesiologists interact with their anesthesia delivery equipment.
During observations, we usually record verbal comments and the time spent on various tasks, as well as note points of friction between people and equipment.
Contextual Inquiry - We conduct interviews with people while they perform tasks so that we can place their feedback in context. For instance, we might ask physicians about using an electronic prescription pad while they write prescriptions.
One-on-One - We interview individuals in person and over the phone when they are under less job stress and can focus on our questions. This approach is necessary when contextual inquiry would be too intrusive or unsafe.
Group - To collect many opinions quickly and draw consensus on particular issues, we conduct group interviews (also called focus groups). While this technique has its ardent critics, we believe that good planning and execution yields reliable findings. Often, group discussions are a valuable complement to observations and individual interviews.
We learn a lot about user needs and preferences by conducting usability tests. Sometimes, we test an existing product as a precursor to designing its replacement. Other times, we test competitors' products to establish performance benchmarks, which form a basis for developing user interface requirements and usability goals.