October 23, 2022

Why you should start with generative research

This post covers how UX teams in customer-centric organization should approach generative research in order to uncover real user needs and develop compelling solutions that address those.

UX Research

How do we even know we are solving the right problem for our customers? This question should be in the minds of every UX and executive team in customer-centric organizations.

Fortunately, there are plenty of methods from the field of UX Research that companies could use to answer this critical question. However they must carefully decide which method is the most sensible to employ given the stage of product development and objectives.

Among these methods, generative research is particularly useful and should be employed even before a product is developed. This is because generative research helps companies set the initial direction of the product. On the other hand, evaluative research methods will aid validate the shape of the solution.

In this article, we will cover the following points:

  • What is generative research and why it is useful
  • How to conduct generative research
  • Techniques to analyze your research

By the end of this post, you should gain a solid initial grounding in this field of UX Research, but as with everything in life, practice, practice, and practice some more to get better at it!

What is generative research?

Generative research, also sometimes referred to as foundational or exploratory research, aims to understand users behavior, motivations, and pain points beyond the product.

That’s right, generative research provides the foundation to help companies truly gain a deep understanding of who their users are and what their needs are.

It is also referred to as strategic research because it helps the company develop the right product strategy by answering some of the key problems related to user needs and behaviors.

Why is generative research essential?

Simply put, generative research helps you adopt a first-principles mindset around how your users think and behave. First-principles thinking helps you break down problems into its most atomic parts. Breaking down problems in such a way helps you understand the relationships among all these parts, reframe the problem relative to these parts, and devise a more robust solution.

More concretely, generative research helps understand the Whys:

  • why do users face a particular problem?
  • why is it important for them to have this problem solved?
  • why have they devised such a solution to their problem, however imperfect it is?
  • why they haven’t tried different approaches? etc.

Understanding the why behind user behavior helps you focus on the real needs that can positively impact their lives.

Beyond the Why, generative research can also help understand what and how type of questions too.

Many companies who claim they are product-centric are unfortunately building features and products that no-one wants or asked for. They fall into this product death trap cycle because they have failed to develop a deep understanding of their users and generate the right solutions.

Instead of starting in the solution space, they should use generative research to understand the problem space. Doing generative research will help them generate ideas to creatively tackle the problems their users face.

How to conduct generative research

To begin with generative research, you must create a Research Plan. The first thing the plan should contain is a clear definition of the research objectives.

In order to write the research objectives, you must speak with stakeholders and colleagues to determine what the company is trying to learn and why it matters to have answers to these questions.

We recommend interviewing each one of your stakeholders individually to get to know them and build a richer picture of the problem space

Work with them to formulate the research objectives and make sure you get agreement and commitment from them to conduct the research. This is also called stakeholder buy-in.

Next, you must choose a methodology. To decide which one to employ you must understand that these methodologies can be broken down into multiple dimensions. Those dimensions are:

Attitudinal vs Behavioral:

i.e. what people say (attitudinal) vs what they do (behavioral)

Qualitative vs Quantitative.

Qualitative methods helps generate data from attitudinal or behavioral studies based on direct observation or conversation with users. On the other hand quantitative methods use indirect techniques for collecting data on what people do or say. Generally, quantitative methods can be applied on a large group of users whereas qualitative methods are used on a small group of users.

The diagram below from Nielsen Normal Group illustrates the different research methods you could apply based on attitudinal/behavioral and qualitative/quantitive dimensions. You could also read their excellent article on when to use which UX Research method.

2x2 quadrant of UX Research methods by Nielsen Norman Group
2x2 quadrant of UX Research methods by Nielsen Norman Group

For generative research methods are by nature qualitative. Moreover, the two most commonly used generative research methods are field studies and user interviews.

Field Studies

Field studies is an umbrella term for a set of techniques that aim to understand how people behave in their environment.

In field studies, the research is conducted in the place people work, live, or operate.

Field studies help gain a deep understanding of users by observing what they do as opposed to simply listening to what they say they do.

Doing field studies is critical for organizations that are building expensive physical products like cars for instance. In those cases, it’s critical to see how people behave to learn about the unexpected (i.e. what we don’t know we don’t know) and understand how they interact with their vehicles. This helps avoid making costly and potentially fatal mistakes in the design and production phase, which should occur after field studies have been conducted and insights have been generated.

On the other hand, field studies tend to be more costly in both time and effort to conduct. This is because it requires travelling to the place where participants operate. Additionally, physical access to the participant’s location must be granted ahead of time. Field studies may also not be possible in cases where access to the location cannot be granted or travel to the participant’s location cannot be arranged.

Finally, there may not be a need to conduct field studies. In these cases, user interviews could be a good alternative.

User interviews

User interviews are a popular method for extracting attitudinal data from people. A user interview consists of a 1:1 session between a user (or participant) and a researcher during which participants are asked a series of questions about a specific topic.

The goal is for UX Researchers (or whomever is conducting the interview) to learn more about this topic. Learning more here means asking users to describe their attitudes, thought process, and activities around this topic. This type of conversation helps uncover insights that ultimately lead companies to make better decisions with users need at the centre of it.

While the interviewer asks questions, the user interview should not be seen as an uninspiring or intimidating questions/answers exchange. Rather, it should serve as the outlet for users to share stories about their life, their pains, their experience, and their aspirations with regards to the topic being studied. Stories are where the richest insights come from. Therefore it’s critical to get to the point where participants feel comfortable enough to share their stories during user interviews.

User interviews can be conducted in-person in a lab, office-space (whether company office or a neutral location), or remotely. With the growingly popularity of remote-work and rapid adoption of video communication tools, it’s now increasingly common for user interviews to be conducted remotely. Indeed, video has many benefits when it comes to analyzing user interviews which we elaborate further in this post.

If you’re conductive user interviews, we highly recommend writing a discussion guide.  The discussion guide will help you add more structure to your conversations and produce deeper insights.

The questions in the discussion guide should help answer the research objectives you formulated earlier. Note that the discussion guide is not to be followed robotically: sometimes a participant may take you down an unplanned conversation pathway that uncovers new information which could be outside of the scope of the research objectives, yet provide valuable insights that will help the company make more better decisions with this new information.

Recruiting participants

After choosing the method, you must find people to talk to. Recruiting participants is a challenging part of the process. Companies can either recruit participants themselves, or use the services of companies that specialise in participant recruitment.

Doing the recruitment in-house works best when the participants the company wants to speak to are either internal users, subscribers to a mailing list, or already known leads. Participant recruitment companies have a much wider reach and can therefore find more participants with more complex recruiting requirements.

Regardless of the approach chosen, the following points should be considered to maximise the quality of the participant pool:

  • have a clearly defined type of individual you want to interview
  • decide how many participants should be interviewed
  • create a screener document to filter out unsuitable participants
  • allocate budget for compensating participants (if required)

Once a satisfactory pool of participants has been drawn, you must reach out to them to arrange interviews. To reduce back-and-forth in communication, we recommend using scheduling software (e.g. Calendly) so that participants can book a time that is convenient for all parties.

How to analyse generative research

After interviews have been conducted, it’s time to bring all data together in order to find patterns. This process should be done iteratively, after each conversation, so that information stays fresh in the interviewer’s mind.

At the end of all these analyses, insights from each of the conversations can be synthesized in order to extract themes.

Review and tag

If you’ve recorded interviews, you need to store them somewhere for future consumption. Traditional storage systems like Google Drive and Dropbox are not great places to store your videos because their layout and UX is not optimised for a rich format like video.

Instead, prefer platforms that offer automated transcription with accurate word-by-word  timestamps like EnVsion to save hours so that you can focus on extracting insights, and not manually transcribing or searching for a particular video of interest.

After uploading videos, watch (and listen) to the  interview. Highlight any important observation stated by participants and apply the right tag, which could have been defined ahead of time as part of a tagging taxonomy exercise. Generally, the tags should map to your research objectives to enable you to easily slice and dice through highlights across multiple conversations.

Affinity diagram

Affinity diagrams (also sometimes called affinity maps) are one of the most popular ways to synthesize research data. This step would be conducted after each individual session has been analyzed.

The goal of affinity mapping is to collaboratively group observation into specific themes in order to detect patterns. Patterns are easily detected when multiple observations are grouped into a cluster.

From there it becomes easier to articulate the findings of the research to stakeholders so that better decisions can be made with the insights uncovered.

A team during an affinity mapping session with post-it notes on a whiteboard (source: Unsplash)
A team during an affinity mapping session with post-it notes on a whiteboard (source image: Unsplash)

Produce a report or presentation

Finally the output of the research should live in a report, presentation or both. Reports tend to be long and comprehensive. They are the standard research artefact expected by many large organization that get their research carried out by specialist UX consultancies.

However, in fast-moving companies reports are falling out of favour these days due to the dynamic nature of research. In these cases, a simpler 10 slide presentation can be enough to grab the attention of colleagues, stakeholders, and trigger important conversations and decisions.

If you are working with videos, we recommend embedding some highlight reels of key observations in your presentations to win the hearts and minds of your team. These reels should contain statements that are repeatedly voiced by participants across your multiple conversations. These highlight reels could be related to a specific pain point, methodology or feature request for instance.

Conclusion

One part of knowing whether you are building the right solution for your users is to start with a deep understanding of users. If such an understanding is not already present, then it is crucial you get it. That’s what generative research helps with.

Also called foundational or exploratory research, generative research helps companies that truly want to become customer-centric gain a deep understanding of their users in order to generate new solutions and approaches to the challenges their users face.

Generative research is generally carried out before the design phase, but it can also be successfully used even after a given product has been released.

From field studies to user interviews, there exists many techniques available to conduct generative research, and it is up to UX teams to decide which one they should employ given their resources, domain in which they operate, and the type of insights they want to uncover.

While generative research is a great way to de-risk the solution that will be implemented, it is not a guaranteed recipe for success. Customer-centric companies must ensure they continually engage with their users via evaluative research methods, relevant sales and marketing, and of course strong product execution.

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