User Experience Research at Scale

An important part of any user experience department should be a consistent outreach effort to users both familiar and unfamiliar. Yet, it is hard to both establish and sustain a continued voice amongst the business of our schedules.

Recruiting, screening, and scheduling daily or weekly one-on-one walkthroughs can be daunting for someone in a small department having more than just user research responsibilities, and the investment of time eventually outweighs the returns as both the number of participants and size of the company grow.

This article is targeted at user experience practitioners at small- to mid-size companies who want to incorporate a component of user research into their workflow.

It first outlines a point of advocacy around why it is important to build user research into a company’s ethos from the very start and states why relying upon standard analytics packages are not enough. The article then addresses some of the challenges around being able to automate, scale, document, and share these efforts as your user base (hopefully) increases.

Finally, the article goes on to propose a methodology that allows for an adjustable balance between a department’s user research and product design and highlights the evolution of trends, best practices, and common avoidances found within the user research industry, especially as they relate to SaaS-based products.

Why conduct usability sessions?

User research is imperative to the success and prioritization of any software application–or any product, for that matter. Research should be established as an ongoing cycle, one that is woven into the fabric of the company, and should never drop-off nor be simply ‘tacked on’ as acceptance testing after launch. By establishing a constant stream of non-biased opinions and open lines of communication which are immune to politics and ever-shifting strategies, research keeps design and development efforts grounded in what should already be the application’s first priority–the user.

A primary benefit in working with SasS products is that you’re able to gain feedback in real-time when any feature is changed. You don’t have to worry about obsolete versions, or download packages–web-based software enables you to change directions quickly. Combining an ongoing research effort with popular software development methods such as agile or waterfall allows for immediate response when issues with an application’s usability are found.

Different from analytics

SaaS are unique in that there is not the same type of tracking needed in-product. Metrics such as page views or bounce-rates are largely irrelevant, because the user could be spending their entire session on configuring functions of a single feature on a single page.

For example, for our application here at Loggly, the user views an average of ~2 pages (predominantly login and then search) and spends on average 8x as long on search then any other page. Progression is made within the page-level functions, not among multiple pages within the application’s structure.

Javascript-heavy applications don’t have the same URL and tree structure content-heavy sites are built around but instead make calls to different states of the application from within the same page.

Say your analytics package gives an indication that something is wrong with the setup flow or configuration screen, but you don’t yet have a good concept of at what point in the process the users are getting stuck.

Perhaps a button might be getting click after click because it is confusing and unresponsive, not because its useful. Trying to solve this exclusively with an analytics package will pale in comparison to the feedback you’ll get from a single, candid user who hits the wall. As discussed later in this article, with screensharing, you’re able see the context in which the user is trying to achieve a specific task, defining the ‘why’ in their confusing becomes more apparent than just the ‘what’ are they clicking on.

Determining a testing audience

The first component of defining any research effort should be to define who you want to talk to. Ideally, you’ll be able to have a mix of both new users and veterans that are able to provide a well-rounded feedback loop on both initial impressions of your application as well as historical perspective on evolution and found shortcomings after repeated use, but not all companies have this luxury.

Once in the door

Focus first on the initial steps the user has to take when interacting with your application. It seems obvious, but if these are not fulfilled with maximum efficiency, the user will never progress into more advanced features.

Increasing the effectiveness of the flow through set-up, configuration, and properly defining a measure of activation will pay dividends to all areas of the application. This should be a metric that is tested, measured, and monitored closely, as it functions as a type of internal bounce rate. Ensuring that the top of the stream for the majority of application users is sound will guarantee improved usage further down the road to the deeper, buried interactions.

These advanced features should be also be tracked and measured with the correlation that starts to paint a profile of conversion. Some companies define conversion as free-to-paid; others do so in a more viral sense–conversion being defined as someone who has shared on social media or similar.

As you start itemize these important features, you’ll get a better sense of the usage profile for where you’re trying to point the user to. For example, adding a listing record, or perhaps customizing a page–these might match a profile for someone who is primed for repeat visitation, someone who has created utility and a lasting connection, and ultimately ready to convert.

Avoiding overlap

If there is a focus on recruiting participants who are newly signed-up users, then you’ll likely overlap with outbound sales efforts. Because your company’s sales and marketing funnel tries as hard as possible to convert trial users to paid, or paid to upgrade, the company’s priority will likely be on conversion, not on research.

Further, if a researcher tries to outreach for usability surveys at this point, from the user’s perspective (especially those deemed potential high-value customers) it would mean different prompts for different conversations with different people from various groups within your company, all competing for spots on their calendar. This gives a very hectic and frenetic impression of your company and should be avoided.

In the case of a SaaS product, sometimes the sales team has already made contact with potential customers, and many of these sales discussions involve demonstrations around populated, best-case scenarios (which showcase the full features) of your product.

As a result, you may find the participant has been able to ‘peek behind the curtain’ through watching the sales team provide these demonstrations, giving them an unfair advantage as to how much he / she knows before trying to finally use the product themselves. For the inexperienced user, your goal is to capture the genuine instinct of the uninitiated, not those who have seen the ‘happy path’ and are trying to trace back the steps to get to that fully-populated view.

To make sure you’re not bumping heads with the sales and conversion team, ask if you can take their castoffs–the customers they don’t think will convert. You can pull these from their CRM application and automate personalized emails asking for their time. I’ll outline this method in further detail in the section following, because it pertains to the veteran users as well.

Photo of people in a conference exhibit hall.

Conferences are a great way to survey new and existing users.

As described in a previous post, guerrilla testing at conferences is a great way of fulfilling what gets seen and what parts of the interface or concept get ignored. These participants are great providers of honest, unbiased feedback and haven’t been exposed to the product other than some initial impressions of the concept.

Desiring the messy room

But what about the users that have been using your product for months now, those who have skin in the game, have already put their sweat and dollars behind customization of their experience? Surveying these participants allows us to see where they’ve found both utility and what areas need be expanded upon. Surveying only the uninitiated won’t provide feedback on any nagging functional roadblocks, those which are found only after repeated use. These are the participants that will provide the most useful feedback, sessions where you can observe the environment that they’ve created for themselves, the ‘messy room.’

Making an observational research analogy, a messy room is more telling of the occupants’ personality than an empty one. Given your limitations, how has the participant been forced to find workarounds? Despite these workarounds, they’ve continued to use the product, in despite of how we’ve expected them to use it–and these two can be contrastingly very different.

Online feedback form for Loggly UK.

Example of a feedback form, initiated via email.
User is able to schedule a 1:1 screensharing session on the confirmation page.

Automated recruitment

Find your friendly marketing representative/sales engineer at your company (or just roll your own) and discuss with them the best way to integrate a user experience outreach email into the company’s post-funnel strategy. For example, post-funnel would be after their trial periods have long since expired and the user is either comfortable in their freemium state or fully paid up.

As mentioned earlier, you can also harvest leads from the top of the funnel in the discarded CRM leads. However, you’ll likely have a greater percentage of sessions with users that are misfires–those indifferent or only just poking around the app, with not yet a full understanding of what it might do. Thankfully, the opt-in approach for participation filters this out for the most part.

Focusing again on the recruitment of the veteran, experienced users, another, more complex scenario would be to trigger this UX outreach email once a specific set of features have been initiated–giving off the desired signature of an advanced, informed user.

Going from purely legacy-based perspective, six months of paid, active use should be enough time to establish a relationship with a piece of software, whether they love or hate it. If there exists enough insight into the analytics side of the sales process, it would behoove you to also make sure that the user has had a minimum number of logins across these six months (or however long you’ll allow the users to mature).

Outreach emails triggered through the CRM should empower the recipient to make the experience of the product better, both for themselves and their fellow customers. Netflix does a great job of this by continually asking about the streaming quality or any delays around arrival times of their product.

I also recommend asking the users a couple of quantitative and qualitative questions, as this metric something you should be doing for your greater UX efforts already. These questions follow the guidelines of general SUS (System Usability Survey) practices that have been around for decades. Make the questions general enough so that they can be re-used and compared going forward, without fear of needing the change the goalposts when features or company priorities change.

Screen grab of the user's desktop.

A peek into an active user’s work environment.

When engineering this survey, be sure to track which tier of customer is filling out these surveys, because both their experience and expectations could be wildly different. Remember also to capture the user’s email address as a hidden field so you can cross reference against any CRM or analytics packages that are already identifying existing customers.

Setting boundaries

It depends on the complexities of your product, but typically 20-30 minutes is enough time to cover at least the main areas of function. Any longer, and you might encounter people not wanting to fit in an entire hour block into their schedule. If these recorded sessions are kept to just a half-hour, I find that a $25 is sufficient compensation for this duration of time, but your results may certainly vary.

In any type session, do iterate that this is neither a sales, nor a support call. You’re researching on how to make the product better. However, you should be comfortable on how to avoid (or sometimes suggest) workarounds to optimize the participant’s experience, giving them greater value of use.

Tools of the trade

For implementation of the questionnaire, I hacked the HTML / CSS from a Google Form to exist as self-hosted page but still pushing results through the matching form and input IDs to the extensible Google Spreadsheet.

There are a few tutorials that explain how to retain your branding while using Google’s services. I went through the trouble so I can share the URL of either the form or the raw results with anyone, without the need to create an account or login. As we discuss the sharing component of these user research efforts, this will become more important. Although closed systems like SurveyMonkey or Wufoo are easy to get up and running, the extensibility or a raw, hosted result set does not compare.

Insert a prompt at the end of the questionnaire for the user to participate in a compensated user research survey, linking to a scheduling applications such as Calend.ly. This application has been indispensable for opt-in mass scheduling like this. The features of gCal syncing, timezone conversion, daily session capping, email reminders, and custom messaging all are imperative to a public-facing scheduling board. Anyone can grab a 30-minute time slot from your calendar with just your custom URL, embeddable at the end of your questionnaire.

To really scale this user research effort to the point where it can be automated, you cannot spend the time trying to negotiating mutually-available times, converting time zones and following up with confirmations. Calend.ly allows for you to cap the number of participants who can grab blocks of your time, so you can set a maximum number of sessions per day, preventing a complete overload of bookings in your schedule.

As a part of the scheduling flow within Calend.ly, a customizable input field asks the participant for their Skype handle in order to screen share together, and I’d advise for the practitioner to create a separate Skype account for this usability effort. With every session participant, you’ll begin to add and add more seemingly random contacts, any semblance of organization and purity for your personal contact list will be gone.

Screen grab of Calend.ly booking utility.

Calend.ly booking utility – a publicly-accessible reservation system.

Calend.ly booking utility – a publicly-accessible reservation system.

Once the user is on the Skype call, ask for permission to record the call and make sure that you give a disclaimer that their information will be kept private and shared with no one outside the company. You might also add ahead of time that any support questions that come up, you’ll be happy to direct to the proper technicians.

Permissions granted, be sure to re-iterate to the participant the purpose and goal of the call, and provide them with a license to say whatever they want, good or bad–you want to hear it. Your feelings won’t be hurt if they have frustrations or complaints about certain approaches or features of your product.

For recording the call, there are plenty of options out there, but I find that SnagIt is a good tool to capture video, especially given the resolution and dimension of the screen share tends to change based upon the participant’s monitor size. When compressing the output, a slow frame rate of 5/10 fps should suffice, saving you considerable file size when having to manage these large recordings.

Tagging annotations

When you’re walking the participant through the paces of the survey, be sure to annotate the time started and any high/lowlights you see along the way. While in front of your desktop, a basic note-taking utility application (or even pad and paper) should suffice. This will allow you to go back after the survey is finished and pull quotes for use elsewhere, such as powerpoint presentations or similar.

I always try to write a running diary of the transcript and a summary at the end just to cover what areas of the application we explored, as well as a quick summary of what feedback we gathered. Summarizing the typed transcript and posting the relative recorded video files should take no more than 10 minutes, which will still keep your total per-participant (including processing) time to under an hour each, certainly manageable as a part of your greater schedule.

Share the love (or hate)

I want to make sure that these sessions are able to be referred to by the executive and product management team for use in their prioritization strategy. Setting up an instance of MAMP / WordPress on a local box (we’re using one of the Mac Minis that power a dashboard display) which allows me to pass around the link internally and not have to deal with some of the issues around large video file sizes being uploaded, as well as alleviate any permissions concerns with these sessions being out in the wild.

Screen grab of the session archive interface.

Our UX session archive, with hundreds of recorded and tagged sessions.

Also important is to tag these posts attached to these files when you upload them. This allows faster indexing when trying to find evidence around a certain feature or function. Insert your written summary into the post content, and you’ll be able to better search on memorable quotes that might have been written down.

These resources can be very good for motivation internally, especially among the engineers who don’t often get to see people using the product they continually pour themselves into. They’ll also resonate with the product team, who will see first-hand what’s needed to re-prioritize for the next sprint.

After awhile, you’ll start to get a great library of clips that you can draw knowledge from. There’s also a certain satisfaction to seeing the evolution of the product in the interface through these screengrabs. That which was shown as confusing at one time may now be fixed!

Follow-up

Fulfillment of a participant compensation can be done through Amazon or other online retailers; you can wire a gift card through an email address, which you’ll be able to scrape as a hidden field from the spreadsheet of user inputs. Keep a running list of those that you’ve reached out to and contacted for responses.

You might also incorporate contacts met during sessions described in the Guerrilla Usability Testing at Conferences article, so you’ll be able to follow up when attending the next year’s conference to recruit again. After enough participants and feedback, think about establishing a customer experience council that you can follow up on with specific requests and outreach, even for quick vetting of opinions.

Conclusion

This article first outlined the strategies and motivation behind the research, advocating creating an automated workflow of continually-scheduled screenshares with customers, rather than trying to recruit participants individually. This methodology was then broken down to distinct steps of recruitment via email, gathering quantitative and qualitative feedback, and automating an opt-in booking of the sessions themselves. Finally, this article went on to discuss how to best leverage and organize this content internally, so that all might benefit from your process.

User research is imperative to the success and prioritization of any software application (or any product, for that matter). Yet, too often we forget to consume or own product. Whether it be server log management as I’ve chosen, or apartment listing or ecommerce purchases, shake off complacency and try to spend 30-mins a week trying to accomplish typical user tasks from start-to-finish.

Also make it a point to conduct some of these sessions among those you work alongside; you’ll be surprised what you can find just by the simple repetition with a fresh set of eyes and ears. The research process and its dependencies does not have to be as intricate as the one listed above.

 

When your company starts to incorporate user opinion into a design and development workflow, it will begin to pay out dividends, both in the perceived usability of your application as well as the gathered metrics of user satisfaction.

 

Posted in Discovery, Research, and Testing, Learning From Others, Process and Methods, Usercentric | 1 Comment »

1 Comment

  • Jono

    August 18, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Great article, lots of gems hidden in the long read.

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