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Customer Experience

What Role Does UX Research Play In Creating Better Apps?

Bill Wilson  //  July 12, 2018  //  8 min read

When it comes to designing and building a mobile app that your target users will love, there’s one piece of the puzzle you can’t afford to overlook:

In-depth and actionable RESEARCH.

Without research, your app building team is acting on impulse only. You don’t know what your target customer actually wants, why they want it, or how you should deliver it to them. If you don’t create a user experience your target users latch onto, they won’t bother coming back for more.

Here’s the harsh reality about UX: 34 percent of people say functionality drives their decision of whether or not to download an app. And most will not return, or may even delete the app, if that is to happen. If your user doesn’t enjoy your app the first time around, you can bet they’re gone for good. Just like that.

So how do you deliver an experience your users will love? That’s right—research.

Before you can hit the ground running with your build, you need to ask a lot of questions about your target audience and gather all the insights you can about their ideal app experience. That’s where UX research comes in.

There’s one question every UX researcher needs to ask first: What actually leads someone to download a mobile app? A lot of app designers and developers ignore the stats and run full speed ahead thinking they already have all the answers. They assume that if the app looks great and they create some beautiful visuals for the app store, everyone will download it.

But app functionality is more important than how fancy it looks.

When we asked millennials why they choose to download an app, 48 percent said functionality is a key factor while only 37 percent cited design.

Millennial influence

Not only is app functionality more important than design, it also beats out recommendations from close friends. Millennials want to use apps that do something its competitors cannot. They want an app that they enjoy using. They want to have a positive experience with the app.

As millennials are the most active app users, their attention to app functionality and user experience is something every app-building team should key in on.

Millennial app usage

How does the UX researcher fit into the app building process?

Throughout the mobile app planning process, app building stages, and launch phase, the role of the UX researcher morphs. They move from observation to understanding to analysis, until finally their research is implemented in the app project.

At each stage, the UX researcher has specific goals and areas of focus. In this post, I’m going to break down each stage so you can learn how to unearth exactly what your target users are looking for—and how to use those insights to make a great first impression with your app.

Let’s dive in.

Stage #1: Observation | UX Researcher as Private Investigator

The research process begins with the observation stage, or what I call the private investigator stage. The UX researcher takes a big-picture view of the entire project before going into data collection mode.

Before diving into data collection, it’s important you first have a clear understanding of the problem your app is looking to solve. This helps you to focus your efforts. Then you must understand the company goals. You need to know every stakeholder’s vision and overarching desires for the app. From here, you can dig into everything from your target users’ wants and needs, to their behaviours, to the way they use mobile apps in general.

You’re looking for key trends, research-backed insights, and significant studies that can help you decide which direction you should be going before you start building. Mobile companies like SmartInsights, Apptentive, and MindSea are all sharing new insights and trends on a consistent basis, and all three are great places to start looking.

The goal here is fairly straightforward: Collect as much relevant information as possible on your target user and mobile app trends pertaining to your industry.

You’ll break down the research you conduct later, so don’t get caught up thinking about why certain trends exist just yet. Instead, focus on collecting data and statistics. Find studies that are packed with insights like these:

1. Mobile phone users spend 15 percent of their media time using gaming apps, versus just 2% using news apps.

Media time

2. Most people use their phones to access the internet in the morning, desktop computers during work hours, and tablets and phones in the evening.

Phone usage

3. Even though blue is overwhelmingly the most popular app icon colour, 30 percent of all food and drink apps are red, while only 6 percent are blue.

App icon colors

Of course, the more specific info you can find about your particular target user the better, but mobile app stats like these are key to helping UX researchers recognize patterns in the desires and behaviors of their end users.

Stage #2: Understanding | UX Researcher as Market Researcher

At this point in the UX research process, the focus shifts from digging for data to actually making sense of the data you’ve dug up. Whatever statistics you found during the first stage are just a pile of numbers to you right now. There is still work to be done before you can start to design a user experience that your target user will love.

By this stage…

You know people are using their phones in the morning and evening.
You know mobile users are spending more time gaming than reading news.
You know blue app icons are the most common—but not for food apps.

Now you can start asking the big questions that will help you turn this research into actionable insights that can guide the app building process. Each of these big questions is going to start with the same three-letter word: WHY.

Why are people using their phones instead of their other devices in the morning?
Why are mobile users spending more time in gaming apps than news apps?
Why is blue the most popular app icon color?

Identifying your target user’s habits, behaviours and desires is a great start, but without an understanding of why they feel and act the way they do, you’ll be throwing darts in the dark as you build your app, just hoping something sticks. How can you actually answer these big why questions?

This is where the market researcher role kicks in. To get a better understanding of why your target users think and act the way they do, there a number of research tactics you can use:

Interviews: Interviews have always been a great way to collect information directly from target users. Whether you’re running direct question-and-answer interviews, or more open, conversation-style interviews, you’re sure to gain some insight into what your target users are actually looking for.

Surveys: Questionnaires and target user surveys are great for collecting large amounts of simple data. You likely won’t get the highly detailed answers you would in an interview, but you’ll be able to reach more people and collect a lot of different perspectives.

Card sorting: In a card sort, the researcher provides the target user with a handful of key terms and asks them to categorize those terms by importance to them. You can either create the category names for the user (a closed card sort) or let them create the categories themselves (an open cart sort).

A/B tests: Running an A/B test can help app designers identify which elements perform the best. The goal is to show the two variations of a particular element being tested—whether it’s a button, heading, colour or something else—to target users at random and analyze which variation produces the best results.

Stage #3: Analysis | UX Researcher as Archaeologist

Just as an archaeologist analyzes artifacts to draw conclusions about the past, a UX researcher must analyze their findings to paint a detailed picture of the target user that will guide the app build.

This is where the true expertise of a UX designer can shine through.

At this stage, the focus is on analyzing the findings from the first two stages in order to apply them to your app. Take the data you dug up during the initial research stage, combine them with the qualitative information you collected during the second stage, and start drawing conclusions about the direction your app needs to take.

What trends are you seeing in terms of why users want certain apps?
Are there certain UX features that your target users enjoy the most?
What functionality is leading users to keep coming back to the same apps?

With the insights you collect, start building detailed target user personas.

Take all the information you’ve collected to create a picture of your target user that includes what the user wants, why they want it, how they want to access it, and how they plan to use it. Identify their top pain points and what solutions they’re most likely to be looking for. The more detailed you get, the better. And don’t stop at just one persona—chances are, you have multiple kinds of target users who have slightly different needs and motivations.

Once you create these personas, the next step is presenting what you’ve found to the app development team to make sure every single action the team takes moving forward aligns with what your users are looking for the most. There are plenty of possible approaches to presenting your research:

Reports: Presenting your findings in the form of a report is the most common method researchers turn to. While reports allow you to include all the insights you’ve gathered, they’re not always the best because of exactly that—you’re tempted to include all the insights. You need to present your key findings and target user personas in a brief, easily digestible report; otherwise, it may be best to pursue a different presentation method.

Presentations: Gather the team, order in some tasty food, and present your key findings and insights keynote-style. This doesn’t need to be a boring, corporate-style presentation. Include plenty of visuals, focus on the most important findings and make sure it’s engaging and easy to follow.

Posters: Presenting your target user personas in poster form is a great way to quickly get the key points across. You can put up these posters around the office so your target users stay top of mind throughout the development process. A simple design, like these two target user personas from MailChimp, works perfectly:

Mailchimp personas

Wrapping things up

Before you dive head-first into building a mobile app you think your target audience will download and fall in love with, take the time to conduct in-depth UX research that will guide your mobile app strategy.

A bad user experience is enough to make your target users run as fast as they can in the other direction. Remember, just because your app looks the best doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to offer the experience your target users want. Study your target users, identify their desires and behaviours, and build a mobile app that aligns with your research.

What hidden insights has your own UX research revealed during the app building process? Let us know in the comments.

About Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is CEO of MindSea, a creative mobile software company with deep expertise in mobile design, publishing, and delivery of iPhone, iPad, and Android app solutions. Follow him on Twitter @wdrwilson.
View all posts by Bill Wilson >

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