“The advice that you ought to be talking to your customers is well-intentioned, but ultimately a bit unhelpful. It’s like the popular kid advising his nerdy friend to “just be cooler.” They forget to mention that it’s hard.” 

Rob Fitzpatrick: The Mom Test

The best time to talk to your users was two months ago. The next best is yesterday, but in case you’ve missed these opportunities, right now is a decent option as well. However, this is never a smooth task that can be planned, executed, and wrapped up without dealing with many (pun intended) open questions. 

When do we conduct surveys? 

Most user surveys are conducted before the release, during the beta phase, while preparing a large-scale product overhaul, etc. However, nothing stops you from reaching out to your users even during the calmer periods, i.e., while the product is in use and not going through any turbulent changes. 

This is what we decided to do for one of our projects. We realized that we have many questions about our users’ use of the product. The main reason behind our dilemmas was our stereotype-fuelled assumption that the people in this kind of industry are constantly changing, so the majority continuously go through the onboarding process.

So how do we do it?

No survey is the same, and there is no magical set of questions that will provide you with a game-changing set of information to boost the efficiency of your product overnight. However, there are a couple of hints that can help you (as they have helped me and many others before me) design, implement, and analyze a survey in a way that will generate valuable feedback. 

1. Take your time to define goals

The questionnaire design, regardless of the type of research and the tools you’re planning to use, must not be done in a hurry. It would help if you took the time to consult the team, explore the product, understand its business logic, and take this part very seriously – take notes. These notes will help you slowly define a set of precise SMART goals, replacing the vague idea that the survey is being conducted so that you can understand how the users feel about your product.

You should first look for the pain points of the product team – what confuses you and delays the decision-making? In most cases, it happens due to the lack of information about the users and their habits, i.e., it might be something your users can tell you. 

Think of the plans for the future. Scroll down the backlog, you might have to introduce new features in a couple of months that will change how the product looks and feels, so this is a perfect opportunity to gather some valuable input. Looking ahead, you will probably be able to anticipate some dilemmas that can be answered this way.

Although our primary goal here is understanding the user so we can improve the user experience, other people on the project can also benefit from the data collected. Reach out to the people in charge of the business-related decisions and let them know you’re conducting research. They might have some questions for the users that, in the end, could be helpful for everyone involved.

2. Create a questionnaire anyone would feel comfortable answering

You will find a lot of guides on how to build a perfect questionnaire all around the internet. Most of them discuss question types, the length of the questionnaire, etc. However, one thing is often disregarded: you’re a UX designer, make a good user experience out of it. Do not make a questionnaire nobody would feel comfortable answering. Instead, empathize with your users and put yourself in their shoes. 

Imagine this: it’s another hectic workday, our user has just turned in for the morning shift, and on top of all the burning tasks they need to finish today, another one has just appeared in their mailbox – our survey. “Ok, let’s get this over with,” says the user, opening the link in the email and flooding the screen with an endless scroll of large text input fields. Do you think their response will be sincere, unaffected by the fact that we are taking a large slot in their day and forcing them to do something they probably don’t even see as useful?

This kind of questionnaire must be simple, concise, and easy to answer without taking too much time to think of the right words. This way, you’ll get more people to answer it, the answers will be more sincere as they are the result of the user’s first impulse rather than a more profound thinking process, and in the end, the data you gather will be way more applicable later on.

3. Compile the results into a simple set of information

Nobody needs hundreds of pages of charts and graphs. You might feel compelled to create a PhD-level document that goes deep into an analysis of the answers taking into consideration the social and political context in its entirety, in order to show the team what a good job you did with the survey. Rest assured that nobody will read this. 

It is far more practical to draw one or two or a dozen conclusions that can be used as arguments in future product design discussions. The process of generating the report can be exhausting, extensive, and thorough, however, you should not feel bad about yourself if the output turns out to be a one-pager. What matters is that the answers you managed to draw out of this data pile brought you closer to the initial goal you defined. 

But what if it didn’t? Let’s say the survey turned out to be a complete failure. Not a single answer provided helpful feedback, and you don’t know what conclusions to draw from this. You may think the only thing the team can learn from this experience is that you are terrible at doing surveys. 

However, although you may have failed at preparing the goals and the questionnaire, you can still learn something from the results. For example, you may now have a deeper understanding of the demographic your users belong to. You now have an insight into how they think, process questions, and generate answers. Seize this opportunity to learn what kind of questions the users prefer, what kind of responses they are likely to give, how talkative they are, how enthusiastic they are about an opportunity to share their opinion, etc. Do this recovery part right, and the next survey is bound to be a success.

What now?

Okay, we have conducted our first user survey. Time to archive the pdf file of the report and never open it again. 

Please don’t do this. 

These kinds of documents should always be somewhere on your desktop. Open them from time to time, whether you need some information at that particular moment or not. It will help you remember your dilemmas and how you eventually evolved past them. If you keep the survey conclusions somewhere in the back of your mind at all times, you learn how to think the way your users think, and over time you will gain a deeper understanding of their frustrations. 

If you have already done some surveys with your users, take a few minutes and reread the reports. There will almost certainly be at least one thing that will make you go – hmm, I have completely forgotten about this. 

We should constantly remind ourselves of these fine details, which will ultimately help us paint and maintain the image of our users. Only then can we be sure that the product we are building will suit their needs.

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