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Reflections on a year of UX research

Towards the end of July, Liz Valentine celebrates the close of her first year of leading user experience (UX) research at FutureLearn. With this anniversary approaching, she reflects on how UX research now takes place at FutureLearn.

Towards the end of July, Liz Valentine celebrates the close of her first year of leading user experience (UX) research at FutureLearn. With this anniversary approaching, she reflects on how UX research now takes place at FutureLearn.

What is UX research, and why do it?

Broadly, UX research is the process of understanding people and how they use and interpret products (or services). For FutureLearn, this covers everything from web pages used by learners and educators, to learning design, physical certificates and promotional materials. The intention is to improve a particular product, spot unmet needs and opportunities, refine ideas, understand who uses your product and what their needs and desires are, minimise business risk, and help a business progress confidently.

Personally, I like to think of UX research as a combination of tools and contexts which requires both analytical and creative thinking. The tools are the research methods we choose from. The context is the situation we need to research within and the problem we need to solve.

Analytical thinking allows us to effectively approach that problem and ask meaningful questions of it. It also allows us to select appropriate tools to address it to a required level of confidence. Creative thinking brings this all together into a pragmatic solution and helps us work around any challenges or resource limitations. It also helps us to communicate the findings in a relatable way.

The balance of thoroughness, efficiency and pragmatism is really important; we need to be confident in what we learn and learn it in a reasonable timeframe so we can improve FutureLearn deftly and surely to the benefit of our learners and educators. As a company we must make the right choices to achieve our mission and be sustainable – UX research helps us do that.

Who does UX research at FutureLearn?

Although UX research is carried out by various people in the company, and we try and embed and support it in all teams, actual UX researchers are small in number. Sitting within the broader Design Team, I worked solo until March, when I was pleased to welcome a further researcher, Tracey Walker. In fact, the Design Team has recently been renamed the UX Research & Design Team, to reflect our inclusion. This change also emphasises how all team members are part of the full research and design cycle.

Tracey and I mainly specialise in qualitative research methods; typically interviewing, observing and surveying people to understand their behaviours, motivations, fears and beliefs. We seek meaning – for example, why do people do or say as they do? We’re keenly interested in psychology, pedagogy, design, technology and the intersections between those disciplines.

We’re also all about connections: we connect learners to staff and teams. We explain the connections between behaviours, needs and motivations. We research to connect our present to our future.

Beyond the UX Research & Design Team, other teams also conduct research; surveying and interviewing learners, educators and more. As well as working on larger projects, Tracey and I support these investigations – advising on question formation, reaching participants, methods and analysis.

Other parts of the business also work to understand learners and their behaviour from a quantitative point of view. We work with closely with the Data Team specifically; exploring the reasons behind behavioural patterns, testing hypotheses formed during qualitative research, making sure we define appropriate research samples, and refining the ways in which we understand our learners and their behaviour as a company.

We aim to complement each other with breadth and depth. Doing so gives FutureLearn the best chance to identify opportunities to improve and recognise when we succeed.

How do we prioritise and plan research?

Because the UX Research & Design Team has limited resources, and we’re often faced with big questions, we haven’t typically worked to the sprint cycles that the FutureLearn product teams stick to (a sprint cycle is a two week timeline used to iterate and build features). Instead we have our own pipeline that runs in parallel and delivers insight to the teams in time for them to act upon it.

Having said this, we do sometimes conduct quick research projects of two weeks or even two days, where suitable, necessary and realistic. We are also about to have a change of pace as we enter a period of experimentation; working directly with product teams to iteratively explore different ways to increase key metrics.

Tracey and I also keep up to date with activity in the product teams so we can suggest and support research opportunities. In fact we encourage anyone in the business to come to us with questions. I keep track of these and prioritise them by talking to product managers and designers. We also add our own research questions, which may be derived from previous findings.

Common questions we might try and answer include things like:

  • Who are our learners? What unmet needs and desires do they have?
  • How might we encourage more learners to get further through courses?
  • Is this concept or prototype usable, is it understood, and how can it be improved?
  • How are learners adopting this new feature? What impact is it having on them?
  • Why does this pattern in our data exist? Why are these learners doing (or not doing) something?

To scope approaches I need to first fully understand the research questions and their context. I have a list of prompts I use to do this. My favourite is “What do you want to be able to do as a result of this research?” because this clearly tells me what type of findings, speed and level of confidence is needed, and confirms that teams are planning to use the findings. It helps to frame research in this way so we focus on delivering practical, useful outputs that are integrated into the product lifecycle.

Who do we do research with?

We’re passionate about understanding our learners; they are a growing and diverse group of people who are embracing a new way of learning. They never fail to delight us, surprise us and teach us. In this way, they are a reflection of what FutureLearn aims to do for them.

FutureLearn’s user base is very large and broad. It includes all sorts of people from around the world who have a range of ages, prior education levels, occupations, motivations to learn and technical savviness. I see this as an exciting challenge; FutureLearn’s target audience is broad and global; we aim to benefit everyone and want to reach further than traditional education.

This variation means we must be able to adapt and communicate with all sorts of people, building rapport quickly. In addition to researching with our learners, we also conduct studies with educators who make courses and people who interact with FutureLearn in less obvious ways.

How do we conduct research?

Practically, the reach of FutureLearn and our mission to be widely accessible can demand flexibility in how we conduct research; not all our learners have a good internet connection; not all are confident in using video calls and only a limited number can attend research sessions in person.

We therefore use a mixture of face-to-face sessions, video calls, phone interviews, remote usability testing and surveys to try to reach the right people in the most appropriate ways. This variety has required me to be creative in how I share prototypes with participants, record sessions and enable product teams to observe; I’ve built up a collection of equipment and software in a versatile “portable lab” to do this.

We typically use mixed method approaches, with an emphasis on qualitative methods such as interviews and usability testing. Where possible, we combine these with global surveys and online tests or with behavioural data from the platform. This allows us to gain both depth and breadth, test hypotheses, understand the scale of behaviours or opinions, to be mindful of the whole picture, and to explore variations. This in turn supports more confident product decisions.

When reporting findings from research, we aim to be collaborative – it’s not appropriate for me to say “do this!” to a team. Instead, I present findings and my analysis to teams and encourage them to observe remotely and take part in washup sessions to discuss key take-aways. I talk about potential solutions with them, so user needs and team resources can be balanced. This process helps teams to interpret qualitative findings appropriately, take them onboard and to apply what we learn in their other projects.

How are we growing a research culture?

My personal aim at FutureLearn is to grow and champion a culture of research; I want everyone here to be engaged with our research and findings; thinking about how research could help their work, and empowered to conduct their own studies.

To develop a research culture, we present our work with passion, talk with staff about what we do and get others involved in observing when we run studies. Just as we need to be approachable to our users, we must be approachable internally and actively connect with different teams.

We also regularly support others to conduct research themselves; sharing our expertise to define sound research questions and practical methods to approach and analyse them. For example, we train staff teams to carry out guerrilla research in FutureLearn’s home, the British Library. This has a positive impact: staff members who are nervous about talking to strangers often emerge infectiously energised after sessions..

Getting staff engaged with our users develops understanding and empathy; they are, after all, people. Getting staff involved with research not only makes the process and findings non-threatening, but it also creates an appetite to be more inquisitive about users and a better ability to spot where research could offer valuable insight. Identifying where research adds the most value is important, as we have to prioritise our resources, plus we don’t want teams feeling like they need to research every single decision; it shouldn’t be seen as a disempowering and stifling validation process.

There have been challenges in building this culture. For example, when I started, what UX research is, why it’s important and how it can be used was not so well understood all across the company. By working openly and supporting others, this has improved.

Deadlines and the pace at which product teams work can also create challenges; if it feels like there’s too little time to involve teams in the process, research has the potential to seem like it’s threatening and critical. It can also be seen as risky if timelines are short, as when you do research you need to be willing to accept findings that make you rethink your approach and open to discovering something new and surprising. To grow efficiently, we may feel like we need to work more slowly. Focussing can also be a challenge as there is so much going on of interest. Tracey and I must be disciplined in deciding what we explore and what we support.

Research can also be perceived as a very scientific process; something only trained researchers can, or should do. However, while Tracey and I do strive to use sound, ethical, experimental processes and representative participant sampling, I strongly believe that UX research should be pragmatic; it’s much better done with sound guidance than not at all.

I want to encourage people to see research as an integral part of their product development process and feel supported and empowered to conduct it themselves. I don’t want them to see it as an activity that only us, the researchers, can do. I feel this mirrors FutureLearn’s mission to make education accessible to all.

Want to know more about how we do things at FutureLearn? Read other “Making FutureLearn” posts.

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