down arrow
How to Guide User Research Efforts When Following a Human-Centered Design Process

How to Guide User Research Efforts When Following a Human-Centered Design Process

These three questions can guide research for brand-new products and feature updates alike. Read on to implement them with your team.

Not all user research teams look the same. Some folks have supportive stakeholders who are fully brought into running user experience research throughout the product development cycle. Others are doing their best, but don’t have influence over the whole process. And still others dabble in research as needed, without a specific strategy guiding their work.

At some organizations, Human-Centered Design (HCD) appears through the application of the Design Thinking Process when addressing innovation challenges.  Here are some examples of the steps that reflect a Design Thinking approach:

  • Observation, Ideation, Rapid Prototyping, Feedback, Iteration, and Implementation
  • Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test and Iterate.      

Other organizations infuse a human-centered lens throughout their product development lifecycle. For example, dividing their process into three phases: Inspiration phase, Ideation phase, and Implementation phase. The Inspiration phase is grounded in user research and understanding user needs.

Marianne Berkovich, User Research Lead at Livongo, with experience at Google and Adobe, pares down the role of user research throughout the lifecycle into three questions; it’s an approach that’s intuitive for everyone — from user researchers, to designers, to stakeholders — to understand. The three questions that correspond to the development stages of Design, Build, and Launch are:

  • What should we build?
  • How should we build it?
  • Did we build it right?

You can repeat the process as many times as needed, and it’s just as effective for smaller projects (like adding a feature) as it is for designing from the ground up.

In this post, we’ll share details on how she approaches each phase, along with her Do’s and Don'ts for implementing user research as part of a human-centered design (HCD) process with your team.    

Note: Looking for a specific audience to participate in your user research? User Interviews offers a complete platform for finding and managing participants in the U.S., Canada, and abroad. Find your first three participants for free. Or, streamline research with your own users in Research Hub.

Three Questions to Guide User Research in Human-Centered Design 

Below, we explore Marianne’s three guiding questions for guiding research throughout the software development lifecycle.

Whenever you’re conducting research, it’s critical to talk to the right people.  Marianne suggests focusing on behavioral characteristics that might make a difference to how someone might use your product rather than demographic ones, which may be red herrings. It's important to find a mix of people who share a similar need and would be good candidates for your solution. For example, if you had an idea for a new gadget to make baby food more easily, your target user wouldn’t be described as “moms ages 25-40” but rather caregivers of young children, which may include dads, grandparents, and others.

Question 1: What Should We Build?

When doing user research as part of a human-centered design process, ask three questions: What should we build? How should we build it? Did we build it right?

This is the phase where you look for opportunity areas for new products or features. Some of the methods you might use are ethnographic-style interviews and concept testing — perhaps with storyboards. Having pictures to accompany words means it’s easier to confirm you and the participant both agree on what a word or description means. 

When you conduct interviews and analyze feedback, look for patterns between participant answers and experiences, but remember to dive deeper to understand why these patterns exist and what problem is really occurring.

Doing that may take a creative approach in questioning.

Ask the Right Questions and Dig Deeper for More Insightful Findings  

Asking the most effective questions during research is an art. And when conducting human-centered research, it ultimately comes down to understanding who you’re talking to and asking strategic questions on the fly to dig into the right pieces of information.  

Prepare a discussion guide which covers the flow and topic of the discussion you’d like to have with the participant. Always start with some questions to establish rapport with the participant and get to know them as a person first before moving into the relevant topics for the interview. Marianne always includes a few personal questions at the beginning, such as “What happened yesterday?” and “How are things different from a year ago?”

Use the topic questions as a guide to explore unexpected (but relevant) topics and investigate when something interesting comes up. Just remember there’s no need to get through every question or ask them in any particular order. Instead, use the answers to these questions to determine where to dig deeper and guide the conversation. 

When digging deeper, stay empathetic, listen well, and match their tone. “Tell me more about that” is an easy question to ask when you hear something important. You can also try repeating back to the participant what you heard (e.g., if someone says, “That was really frustrating/awesome,” you might follow up with, “What was frustrating/awesome about that?”).  

Humans are complex individuals with many nuances, so look at facial expressions and tone as compared to what they say in their responses. Sometimes what’s interesting may be in the mismatch between what they said and what you observe. This is a moment to point out the discrepancy respectfully and get the participant’s take. Of course, you still need to be attentive to the subject matter of participants’ answers, since this will tell you what is important to them. 

Question 2: How Should We Build It? 

When you reach this phase, you should have the big-picture concept of your solution (a.k.a. what you should build). Now it’s time to work toward building a more specific solution. Essentially, it’s time to take a good idea and make sure it meets the needs of your audience.  

Schedule prototype testing for potential solutions as needed throughout this process. This allows you to catch issues early and minimize problems with the final product. 

User Interviews prototyping
Prototyping for a User Interviews screener survey feature.

For example, Marianne offered this example research scenario of refining an idea for a contactless payment kiosk in restaurants. 

With worries about the coronavirus spread, the kiosks are meant to be a solution to keep sales up without putting customers' and employees' health at risk.   

Someone holding a cell phone

In developing the user interface for the kiosk and testing it out with customers, the team notices a pattern amongst many users: Some users are spending an unexpectedly long amount of time at the kiosk. 

But what exactly is causing some patrons to spend more time at the kiosk than others? 

  • Does the kiosk’s software run slow and cause long load and wait times?  
  • Is this a trust issue where these users watch for their purchase to complete and wait for the home screen to appear? 
  • Are these users buying multiple products and having to place each order one by one? 
  • Does the kiosk have a hardware problem

These are all possible problems the user could be experiencing, but they’re also all different problems that require different solutions. Understanding the root of the issue will help the team focus on real-world solutions for that particular issue.

Avoid the “Crash Test Dummy Approach” to Research 

Particularly important during the “How should we build it phase?” is to avoid treating participants as “crash test dummies.” This is when we fixate on the particular solution so much that the participant becomes an automaton who needs to get from Point A to Point B in our product. Remember that the point of testing is to get real human perspectives on the problem you’re solving and the new solution you’re proposing.

“I think this is the danger of falling in love with your idea and forgetting this is a human we’re designing for,” says Marianne. “You need to understand their thoughts, their beliefs, their attitudes, all of that, rather than focusing and fixating on the solution. Focus on observing whether this possible solution fits into their life, rather than if they can just complete the tasks you have listed in your test script.” 

To avoid this pitfall, Marianne suggests always starting your user sessions with general, open-ended questions to get a sense for who you’re talking to; this contextualizes user feedback and helps you ask better questions to gauge how you can tailor your solution to fit their needs

Note: Looking for the right folks to talk to? Find your first three participants for free. Or, streamline research with your own users in Research Hub.

After you make the finishing touches on the design, you’re ready to launch your product.

Question 3: Did We Build It Right? 

After you release the new or updated product, look at feedback from your customers to gauge what’s working and what isn’t about your product. Marianne suggests usability studies, product surveys, and customer reviews to gather feedback on your product post launch.

Use that information to decide what’s next.

Conducting Remote, Human-Centered, Unmoderated Research 

Someone having a face-to-face call over a computer

One method you can use during the “Did we build it right?” phase is unmoderated usability testing. Unmoderated, remote user research is gaining popularity because it allows for faster research while you still gain valuable information. It’s also just a great alternative to in-person testing during today's time of quarantining and remote work — as long as you ask the right questions. 

For example, Marianne’s team is using asynchronous questioning and recorded sessions on to get feedback (for example, for usability testing). They send a list of tasks and questions, the research participant records their answers and actions, and then the team sends follow-up questions to be answered the same way.

“Since you aren’t there in person conducting the sessions, writing the follow-up questions is much more like survey writing,” says Marianne. You want to avoid phrasing your questions to prompt yes or no answers, and instead, try to get the user to provide detailed context for their responses.  

Even unmoderated testing should include a few questions to get to know the person first. In moderated user testing, she sometimes uses those details in follow up questions (for example, asking if their spouse helps them with a specific task if they mentioned having one). In unmoderated testing, it’s still helpful to get them talking, learn about their lives, and gauge how open they are to answering your questions. 

When you’re preparing the test, remember that you want to avoid the Crash Test Dummy pitfall: You don’t just want to see if end-users can get from Point A to Point B. A key question for the research to consider, Marianne contends, is “Does Point A to Point B make sense within their context?”Just because a user can complete the step doesn’t mean it’s what they want, nor does it mean it’s the most direct solution for their problem.

Repeat the Process 

The human-centered design process is iterative. After the launch, it’s time to begin asking the question “What should we build?” again. Are there extensions to current functionality that are now needed? Are there new needs that arise once your product meets the initial needs your customers had? 

Leveling Up Your Human-Centered Design Methods 

Marianne offered a few suggestions for improving your research skill set: 

  • Learn from developers, product managers, designers, marketers, and anyone else who can be involved in your research. 
  • Seek out opportunities to pick other researchers’ brains and look for chances to collaborate. Working with other researchers allows you to see a different point of view and shows you new ways to approach your work.
  • Don’t become complacent in your skills. Stay on top of tweaking your questions, and focus on asking different questions in your research, too. Look for blind spots; these pinpoint areas where you can improve.  
  • Pinpoint recurring pitfalls or problems in past research. How could you have avoided those? Are there any areas in your research methods you feel could use some refinement? If so, choose what specific skill sets you’d like to strengthen and start practicing.  

Marianne suggests reading the book The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman to learn more about human-centered design. If you’re a fan of podcasts, she recommends tuning in to Dollars to Donuts and Mixed Methods

For Your Next Study, Consider User Interviews 

User Interviews Research Hub

Even if you follow the best methods to apply human-centric research within your design process, your efforts won’t be as successful unless you recruit and engage with the specific type of people who will use your solution.  

To find the best participants for your research, consider User Interviews. We offer two tools to help researchers manage recruitment:

Via Recruit, connect with participants from our database of 350,000+ vetted professionals and consumers. Set your criteria, then narrow in on your favorite participants based on their screener survey responses. Our median time to your first matched participant is just two hours.

Via Research Hub, import your users into a single location where your whole team can coordinate. Know exactly how many times each customer has received a research invitation or has participated in research, see exactly how much they’ve been paid, and review their response history. You can set up any custom tags for easy filtering during future studies.

On both platforms, get help with automatic email reminders, painless scheduling, and incentive payments.

Find your first three participants for free on Recruit, or streamline research with your own users on Research Hub.

Olivia Seitz

Olivia is a content strategist at Grow & Convert who loves science, cats, and swing dancing. She enjoys a mix of writing, editing, and strategy in every work week.

Subscribe to the UX research newsletter that keeps it fresh
illustration of a stack of mail
Table of contents
down arrow
Latest posts from
Research Strategyhand-drawn arrow that is curved and pointing right
lettuce illustration against an abstract blob filled with a teal brushstroke texture

The UX research newsletter that keeps it fresh

Join over 100,000 subscribers and get the latest articles, reports, podcasts, and special features delivered to your inbox, every week.

Yay! Check your inbox for a welcome email from
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.