I am new to the UX research field and I'm looking for insight on how to conduct research on products that already exist, (in this case, websites). My boss is asking me to find out very specific information in the vein of, "We need to know what the needs are related to ____ area of the site" which I'm having a difficult time grasping. I think my confusion is coming from not being sure how to do research when you have such a narrow area of focus. What if people aren't even using the site or using it in the way we expect?

What research method would be best suited for finding out this kind of information?

  • IMHO, if you're new to research, I'd recommend hiring someone else and you take part of the research so you can learn as you go. Research is one of the most sensitive UX areas, and results will depend on it. Quite probably, hiring someone else will be cheaper than completely missing the target – Devin Jun 26 '17 at 16:57

The goal of preliminary research is, as your boss says, discovering the users' needs. From there, you'll design your system to support those needs. This is a better way to begin than to do usability testing and just fixing the existing system's problems.

So. you'll be doing something we call, in my current job, "shadowing." (See also "contextual observation.") Meet a user in their own workspace and simply observe what they do to accomplish whatever task you're interested in. Maybe they'll use your site, maybe not. But even if they don't, you'll witness first-hand what their process is, what other systems they use (What do they Google? What info have they saved in a spreadsheet?), what info they've jotted on Post-Its, what's repetitive and hard for them.

You'll interrupt to ask clarifying questions (Why are you doing that? How did you get here? How often do you do this?) but your main goal here is to watch and notice.

Repeat with 4-6 others and see what patterns emerge. Distill your findings into a set of principles you'll design toward.

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  • Agreed. You'll learn huge amounts from just watching people ( and asking the odd targeted question ). Watching people is fascinating. – PhillipW Jun 26 '17 at 18:55

Based on the type of request your boss is making, I suppose you have to find the best compromise to achieve a result - which is not the best way to research and get to the best result.

As a starting point, find a website which is connected to the product you have to research on. Start with a very simple excel document where you map website structure and the area of your interest contents. Then go grab similarweb addon for chrome

The addon will suggest you sites which are similar to the one you are looking at. Map same stuff for every site you think it's worth mapping, based on your heuristic evaluation (evaluate design, context, content strategy, call to actions etc).

Find patterns in your mapping and you'll be able to identify what the average user for that product needs (assuming the designers of the websites you mapped did some accurate research).

You'll have a point with your boss and maybe you will be able to propose to go deeper and research more accurately (directly with users, if the budget/organization culture allows for it).

Hope it helps ;)

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Echoing Laura's suggestion of gathering similar examples from around the web. I can't think of a better way to start than to pull together a breadth of solutions for the same problem.

I would supplement that with social media/forum research, specifically looking for patterns that emerge in user-to-user conversations about the problems being solved:

  • What is the goal of that area of the site?
  • Does it answer specific questions?
  • Does it need to help the audience make a purchase decision?
  • Who is that audience, what is the decision?
  • What's the outcome you want to help them realize?

The most important part is to understand why people would need to access this area of the site in the first place.

Agile user story format attempts to encapsulate the who, what and why in one sentence. It's an exercise that applies to almost any service or product or granular feature you can think of:

"As a parent with a child about to go to college, I need to see the anticipated on-campus housing costs as compared to renting an apartment so I can make an informed decision about what we will pay for."

If you can confidently express the site area's "job" in this format, you'll have a pretty good idea what you're aiming at.

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