Hey Lawyers, User Research Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank (or Your Spirit)

April 28, 2021

To lawyers, user research often sounds like a scary technical term meant to be thrown around in marketing departments and consulting agencies. It sounds expensive, time-consuming, and confusing. On top of all that, many lawyers don’t understand how or why to do user research. Unfortunately, the lack of user research probably means that your firm or organization wastes money and time by guessing what your users want, need, and how they use your services.

Despite spending time and money on design, without sufficient user research, users may  end up creating their own path instead.

A beautifully designed walkway on a college campus is ignored because users have decided to cut across the lawn instead
Source: UX Magazine, 2020.

Here’s the good news: user research can be easy, it can be fast, and it can be taught. While there is a whole world of knowledge and data out there about user research and design intricacies, we are going to set you up with a few bare-bones tools to start conducting your own user research right now.

What is User Research?

User research is primarily about empathy for the people you serve. It’s about understanding a problem from a user’s perspective so that you can design for their needs to make the process simpler, more accessible, less expensive, or faster.

People tend to operate from their point of view, make assumptions that users think as they think, work as they work, want what they want, or talk like they talk. Research helps avoid these common assumptions by designing based upon  users' experiences rather than our own. While user research may add some additional time to projects, that investment of time upfront can save you money in the long run.

Keep in mind that the more user research you do, the more you can mitigate the risk of wasted time and money. For larger projects, you should invest more time and resources into user research, while smaller low-stake projects can be less intensive. There is no one-size-fits-all.

Let's walk through how to do some basic user research for a small project.

Step 1 - Define Your Research Question

You first need to decide what it is that you want to understand. Being specific will help narrow your focus and produce more actionable data, even when on a tight budget and timeframe.

For instance, asking "What would help tenants facing eviction?" might be too broad unless you have a whole research team at your disposal. Instead, consider asking questions like, "What is preventing tenants from appearing in court once a hearing is set?" Specific questions beget specific problems, which will help inform particular solutions.

If you are hung up on what your first user research question should be, it's okay to draw from your experience, using observations, anecdotes, or online research. Don't get overwhelmed by the number of questions you might want to ask. The great thing about user research is that it should be iterative, meaning that you will have a chance to explore other questions. The important thing is to start somewhere.

Step 2 - Decide on a Research Method

There are many different methods of conducting user research, and it is essential to use the correct method for the type of question you are trying to answer. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What stage of development are you in? Are you gathering ideas for a design, or do you already have a prototype for users to test?
  • Are you trying to answer why users do something (qualitative methods) or how/how often users do something (quantitative methods)?
  • Do you want to know how the user has acted in the past or what they want to see in the future?
  • What is your budget and timeline?

For instance, you might use a research method called card sorting to decide how to reorder the content on your website. Or, you might use surveys at the end of a phone call if you are trying to gauge satisfaction with a new phone hotline or one-on-one interviews of tenants if you are trying to understand their struggles with the eviction process.

The image below comes from a guide on the different types of research methods, which might help you pick the right one(s) for your question.

A graph of where different user reserach methods fall in terms of their approach
Source: Nielsen Norman Group, 2014. 

(Hint: Don’t stress too much about the quantity of research for small projects. For instance, having just five users to interview is probably enough.)

Step 3 - Use Good Research Techniques

While each research method has its own best practices, let's talk about some basic principles for one-on-one interviews since they are a cheap and effective method of gathering a wide range of information. Interviews are often used to explore why users do something, but getting that information is easier said than done. To get the most out of each interview, try some of these techniques.

  • Open-ended questions. Ask questions that require the interviewee to give in-depth answers rather than yes or no responses. This helps keep the conversation going and encourages stories and anecdotes. For example, instead of asking a tenant, “Did you understand that you needed to do something after being served eviction paperwork?” you might ask, “What did you do after receiving the eviction paperwork? Why?”
  • Stay neutral. Try to ask questions in a way that doesn't suggest a "right" answer, and acknowledge both responses that you agree or disagree with-- the interviewee is the expert here. You may be tempted to ask questions that have a solution in them such as, “Would you like if there were a hub where you could see your upcoming court dates?” Instead, you could ask, “If you needed to find your court date, where would you expect to find it?”
  • Acknowledge ideas, but focus on the experience. Users will often suggest new or better ways of doing something. While you should acknowledge these ideas, experience is concrete data about what a user has done and tends to be more valuable than aspirational data about what a user might do because knowing why a user has done something can help you generate ideas for their needs and problems.
  • Listen now, interpret later. It's tempting to want to start brainstorming when an interviewee says something that sparks an idea. But remember that you are here to listen and ask good questions. You will have plenty of time to analyze their responses later, which leads to the last tip.
  • Have someone take notes. User interviews work best if the interviewer's full attention is on the person they are interviewing. If you cannot find another person to take notes, you can always ask the interviewee for permission to record the interview.

Step 4 - Analyzing Your Data

After you have collected your research, it's time to start analyzing the data. Whether you conducted interviews, had users submit surveys, or did a card sorting activity, it all boils down to the same goal: spotting trends and problems.

When looking at the data, group users' comments into categories. What were the problems that keep appearing? Being able to spot these will help you see the major problems that users are having. 

For instance, if you conducted user interviews, one way of analyzing your data might be to jot down each point a user made on a separate post-it note. Once you have them all down, start grouping the post-its to see which topics are being discussed the most.

If you want to do this old school with pen and paper, more power to you, but you could also consider using an online tool like Miro which creates digital post-it notes and gives you and your team a space to analyze them together.

An example of a Miro board which has virtual post-it notes grouped by topic
Miro is a free online platform for idea organization and brainstorming. 

Doing this kind of white-boarding activity can generate valuable insights about users' problems, which drive the next step: ideation.

Step 5 - Ideating

All your user research has led up to this point. You've chosen a research question, decided on methods, carried out your research, analyzed the results… now what? Now, you put all of it to use.

Ideation is the process of dreaming up potential solutions for the problems your users face. When ideating, you and your team should brainstorm without considering constraints: no budget, no timetable, no feasibility concerns, nothing. Write down crazy ideas, practical ideas, any thought as long as it seeks to solve a real problem the users identified. (Hint: this is another excellent place for the virtual whiteboard.)

Once you've gotten the ideas from your team, decide which of them to act on. You will often find that solutions range from short-term to long-term, cheap to expensive, and anywhere in between. The key is to focus now on your priorities and constraints to decide which ones can be implemented.

One way to do this is to rate each idea based on both the effort required from the organization to implement it, and the value to the user, using a prioritization matrix. Effort required should be judged on budget, staff resources, time tables, and technical capabilities, while value to the user can be judged on impact or how much time, effort, or money it saves the user. The solutions you should consider focusing on first will be those that score high on the user value axis, and low on the effort required axis.

Graph showing that solutions that are both high user value and low effort should be acted upon, while solutions that are high effort-high value and low-effort low value are a maybe, and high effort-low value are a no.
Source: Nielsen Norman Group 2018. 

The top ideas from this process are the ones you will then set out to prototype, build and test, so that you can validate the ideas you build from your user research. Learn more about prototyping here

See? It Doesn’t Have to Be That Hard

The reality is that basic user research doesn't have to cost you a pretty penny and doesn't have to take up all of your time. You can still get valuable insights from barely spending a penny at all, which might save you a lot more than a penny in the future.

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