Why user research is vital to the success of your digital transformation

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by Kyle MacDonald-Wallis, User researcher, IPL, K.Macdonald-Wallis@ipl.com

Design something that helps people and they’ll use it. In turn, your organisation will be able to increase revenue, cut costs, operate more efficiently and obtain deeper insights into the way people interact with you and your services.

Digital transformation is the number one item on most organisations’ agendas. With digital transactions typically costing a tiny fraction of their phone, postal or face-to-face equivalents1, the financial saving alone makes digital a worthwhile goal for anyone. And there are more benefits besides.

Cutting the cost of each transaction frees up budget to be spent where it can genuinely add value, which in turn improves your operational efficiency and service offering. Moreover, digital can give you previously unattainable insights into the way people use your products and services, which then enable you to enhance your customer experience and marketing.

Making digital work

Digital transformations have to deliver value through the digital services they create. This value can be measured in a number of ways. The Government Digital Service, for example, uses four indicators: the numbers of people using the services, how satisfied those people are with the services, the percentage of people who complete what they set out to do and the cost per transaction2.

These indicators can be used to measure the success of any digital transformation programme, and achieving what you’re after in each area boils down to one thing: creating a product or service that meets the needs of the people using it.

This is why every digital transformation programme must put the users at its heart by including user researchers as a key part of the team from day one.

The work user researchers do will ensure your process designers can create ways of working that support people’s goals and that your UX designers and developers build systems people want to use.

Moreover, the user researcher provides a level of objectivity that you won’t necessarily get from those who do the actual design and development of the system.

The many aspects of user research

The most important thing about user research is to keep an open mind: don’t assume anything! Everything you do must be driven by qualitative or quantitative insights from your user research.

User research encompasses a range of activities and approaches: which you use will depend on the sorts of insights you’re after and where you are in the overall digital development process. Let’s look at some of the main ones and the situations when you’d use them.

Ethnographic research

If time and budget allow, your project should start with ethnographic research. This type of user research sees people observed in their natural environments, meaning you’ll get to understand the context and surroundings in which they’re carrying out a task. Ethnographic research can give you hugely valuable insights into the way your users behave and help you shape your personas (more on them below).

Because you’re observing people in their natural surroundings, the data is often more realistic than what you can obtain through focus groups or lab-based tests, which are more artificial environments (though both deliver valuable insights when used in the right way). Ethnographic research can help you identify new or currently unmet user needs, which can then be designed into your system or service.

Personas: your archetypal users

Taking the insights from your ethnographic research and other activities such as focus groups, the user researchers’ next job is to put together a set of personas. Personas represent key user groups, their aims, preferences and abilities, and help guide your designers and developers by giving them an overview of the users that they can relate to.

Personas are a must-have for any digital project: it’s impossible to run every decision past real users, so the personas act as a proxy, helping you determine what the system will and won’t do, and how it will work. Remember, though, that everyone is different, so don’t attempt to capture every last user type in your personas – just make sure you get the key groups.

Lab-based user testing

As your digital services take shape, you need to start testing them with real users, to make sure you’re on the right path. This is particularly important in agile or iterative projects, where requirements aren’t detailed at the start.

As indicated above, lab-based user testing is a valuable part of user research that will help you identify pain points in your system or service, as well as people’s emotional response to a design or the content.

Lab-based testing sees a facilitator ask real users to complete a number of pre-defined tasks, with the users thinking aloud as they go about them. You should incorporate this into your design and build process as a regular activity from the outset. Doing so will help surface issues early, thereby keeping the cost of rework low and vastly reducing the chance of nasty surprises down the line.

One thing to be aware of with lab-based testing is the so-called Hawthorne Effect. This is where people change the way they behave when they’re being observed. In other words, what you see in a lab test may not always fully represent users’ real thoughts or their natural actions in a particular situation. If you discover a potential issue, re-test it with other users to see if it persists.

Guerilla testing

To complement more formal lab-based testing, it’s a good idea to run regular ‘guerilla tests’. These involve going out ‘into the wild’ (hence ‘guerilla’) to approach individuals and run through particular scenarios on the system you’re building. It’s a quick and low-cost way of getting rich, qualitative feedback on specific areas, which can be fed into the development process immediately.

While it may seem tempting to use guerilla testing over lab-based research, the drawback of guerilla testing is that the people testing it aren’t necessarily the people you’re designing your system for, so keep this in mind when you’re analysing and acting upon results.


By understanding the role that each type of user research plays, when to use these techniques, how to run tests that deliver useful insights and ensuring there’s a mechanism to incorporate the output into the system or service as it’s being built, you’ll be able to craft and then refine something that people enjoy using.

And by doing that, you’ll encourage uptake, which will help deliver the benefits you’re aiming for from your digital transformation: reduced transaction costs and greater efficiency, improved customer experience and better insights into how people interact with you.

Further reading:
Download the Best practice guide from www.ipl.com: User-centred design

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