Building an app is cool. Building a great app is even cooler. Changing the way people interact as a result of using your app, now that’s legendary. So if you have aspirations of building the next world-changing application, you’ll need to understand your users just as well as you understand yourself — or maybe even better. This involves taking a long hard look at the motivations, behaviors, and problems of your users, and putting all your assumptions to the test. Sometimes a small change in perspective can yield an immense insight.

Whether you’re starting from scratch or building off an existing product, user research is critical to creating an effective app. If you want to improve your mobile app or build a new one, you have to know your users: who they are, what they want, what they use your app for, and what they wish your app did that it doesn’t currently do. User research is a growing field that uses a wide assortment of methods to gain insights and answers to questions like these. UI/UX isn’t just about what looks cool; it’s about what works best to get users where they want to go in a quick and efficient manner so they’ll come back the next time they need something you have to offer.

The Full Menu

There are many ways to perform user research, but here are a few of the most common methods that might be of interest:

  • Interviews/focus groups: Sitting down with users individually or in groups to ask them about their experiences and opinions regarding your app or ideas you might have for a prospective app.
  • Surveys: Sending out questions to a targeted audience to learn about who they are, what they use your app for, and what they wish was different about it.
  • Clickstream analysis: Reviewing data on when people open your app, the sequence of parts they access, and how long they spend in those different areas.
  • Journey mapping: Simulating the process that people go through to address a need that you want your app to fulfill in order to learn how your app can fit into that process.

It isn’t feasible or practical for someone to do all of these, so you have pick out which method works best for you. The first step in the selection process isn’t following the pack, but figuring out what specific information you need to build or improve your product.

If you want to know what parts of your app people spend the most time with, then you might use clickstream analysis. If you are trying to make it easier for people to book flights in a hurry, you might try journey mapping to walk through the steps that lead up to the final purchase. If you’re struggling to narrow down the methods to the ones that would be most helpful to you, here’s a great table laying out what kind of information is most likely to be gleaned from the different methods.

For the purpose of this article, we will highlight two methods that can generate valuable insights into making great apps: surveys and journey mapping.

Plz Take My Survey?

Lots of people want to give feedback, but the initial excitement of being able to share one’s thoughts can wear off quickly due to an excessively long survey. Chris Thelwell wrote a great article called “How To Quickly Create A Powerful Survey” that outlines why it is so important to know what information you are looking for before you start doing user research and how this applies specifically to survey design. His company created “The Lean Survey Canvas” template that requires survey designers to think about what information they want to gain from a survey and then separate it into two categories before writing any questions: what they already know and what they do not know. Each question is designed to elicit information that is specifically needed so that participants and analysts do not waste their time on questions and answers that are not necessary for reaching your objective.

One way to ensure you are getting the information you need is by using open-ended questions, which can be invaluable in obtaining information about complex topics. If you have learned that some users are getting bored with your app’s features and you want to add more, don’t limit yourself to just the ideas you come up with in a multiple-choice question. You can ask your users to share their own ideas that you may never even have considered with an open-ended question, “What do you wish this app could do?”

With your on-point information, you can build or improve your app to meet your users’ needs. If you find out your most active users first heard about your app from friends, then you could make changes so it’s easier for users to recommend the app to their friends. A survey can yield powerful insights when designed well to gather the information you need.

Walk A Mile In Your User’s Shoes With Your App Up

Journey mapping is the process of outlining the steps someone must take to accomplish a task, hopefully with the help of your app. Brittany White explains how the method works and says it requires researchers to “walk through each step with the user and ask them to relate those steps to their actions and emotions.”

Let’s say you’re making an app that allows users to order a pizza. Journey mapping requires you to walk through the process of ordering a pizza from the perspective of a potential user. The process starts when someone realizes they’re hungry, decides they want pizza, and picks up their phone to figure out where to order from and what to get. Learning your user’s decision-making process can help you decide the best ways to advertise your app or what features you can add to make that journey easier — from hungry to satisfied — thanks to the delicious pizza your app helped them get.

Journey mapping forces the developers to put themselves in the place of the users (a person starving for pizza) so the designers will make the choices that best help those people (getting them a pizza pronto).

Crafting The Perfect App

A lot of user research operates on the same assumption as crowdsourcing, that a large group of people knows more than a small group of people. This is generally true with quantitative methods like clickstream analytics and surveys, where having a certain number of respondents is critical to be statistically relevant. This type of research is usually more concerned with what is happening, figuring out what people are doing. When using qualitative methods like journey mapping or usability testing, the diversity of opinion and alignment with the target user are more important because it’s more about the why it’s happening, why people are taking specific actions (or not taking them). As a result, with qualitative testing you can generally focus on getting feedback from a smaller number of users, some saying you only need to test with 5 users to get all the data you need.

User research is crucial to building and improving an app that people come back to over and over. It’s easy to think you know what other people want outside the office, but doing the research gives you the confidence of knowing where you were right and where you were wrong. Now let’s all go out and test some assumptions to build a better app (mousetrap).

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