Work With Us

3 Top User Research Tools with Stuart Penman

(Our “3 Top Tools with” series looks at the everyday work of Bresslergroup’s strategists, researchers, designers, and engineers through the lens of their top product design tools. It was inspired by our collective glee over our recently expanded workshop, lab, and brand new usability testing lab; and by Core77’s Tech Specs series.)

User researchers rely on things like duffel bags, cameras, the Internet, and Post-it notes – things that may seem mundane compared to the technical complexity of an electrical engineer’s tools.

But the ways in which we use them can be seriously demanding, and their simplicity can be deceiving. As researchers we need to be as open, flexible, and as adaptable as our tools. It’s our job to be perceptive, comfortable with uncertainty and complexity, and constantly on the lookout for nuance.

Being on the road is a fact of life for a user researcher. Right now as you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance I’m not at home or behind my desk. I’m more likely to be on a plane or sprinting through an airport somewhere.

On any day I might be in a country that a week ago I would’ve been hard-pressed to point to on a map, having a conversation with some locals at a dive bar.

User research is an ideal job for anyone who’s generally and genuinely curious about people, and who has a profoundly difficult time sitting still for very long. Our “ordinary” tools are remarkable for the things we use them for, the places they help us get to, and the people they allow us to come into contact with.

1. Duffel Bag

The right luggage is essential for someone in my position. In the past few weeks our team has been to Europe two separate times, all over North America, and pretty soon we’ll be in South America, and so on.

Personally I’m a devout believer in the one-bag rule, regardless of the trip’s length. Many people swear by wheeled luggage — and for navigating smooth surfaced airports, well-planned connecting flights, and clear sidewalks, they might be right. There’s something to be said, though, for carrying your own load.

Experience has taught me that it’s not just about how much or what you pack, but how you carry it that shapes an entire trip. A week could be split between navigating subway stations in New York and trying to find your way around Slovenia. You need a bag that adapts to all of these environments.

2. Post-it Notes

I don’t know if Art Fry had researchers or designers in mind when he pitched Post-its to 3M, but you’d be hard pressed to find a design office that isn’t wallpapered with them today. They have a versatility that’s difficult for digital tools to replicate, and they seem to have a place in all aspects of the design/research workflow. They serve as a quick, at-hand mechanism for capturing ideas during brainstorming.

They can be especially helpful when working with groups. It’s liberating for everyone to have a place to write down an idea and stick it on the wall next to someone else’s. It enlivens the process, and, because the notes themselves aren’t precious, they allow freedom to play with ideas and to debate outside the confines of titles and roles.

Post-it notes are the best tool for sorting the first big download when you come back from doing research.

They are great for laying out ideas en masse and for filtering out what isn’t salient. I work best when I can physically shift my thoughts around, and few tools are better for that. A lot of what researchers do is take complex and often competing sets of questions, ideas, and perspectives and try to detect patterns. Post-its play an understated but integral role in helping develop actionable insights for clients.

3. The Internet

I might be cheating the three-tool rule with this one as the Internet contains lots of tools. In research we use them often and well. We’re online doing many of the same things you might be doing online: contacting clients, keeping teams in the loop while in the field, running A.V. for an interview so others can see what’s going on remotely.

Sometimes the Internet is the tool that helps us connect with people in the field. Recently on an overseas trip I was able to use the Google Translate app to assist in conversation and translate critical info that helped me navigate unfamiliar terrain, break down language barriers, and make friends with some locals.

When getting out into the field isn’t an option, we’ll go online to access subjects. Not long ago as part of an ethnographic study we used a mobile app called dscout to help put us in remote touch with some research participants.

Using the app we were able to observe the more private moments of a group of people dealing with a specific medical condition.

The results from asking people to use their smartphones to capture parts of their everyday lives over several weeks were revealing. We were able to leverage these and some additional research to provide insight about unknown challenges that will hopefully feed directly into helping our client improve everyday life for people suffering from that condition. One of the best things about user research is the balance between traditional and new tools and the creativity required to curate the right mix for each project.

(Researchers and engineers and designers, oh my! Check out the other entries in our 3 Top Tools with series to read about top tools for product design across Bresslergroup’s other disciplines.)