How to share in the rewards of user research

Posted in: Agile, Digital transformation, User research

Our priority principle is 'Put users’ needs first'. Lately we’ve been helping University teams to carry out their own user research. We've found it very effective and we now want to encourage more departments to get involved.

Why we prioritise user needs

There are people out there who know how to make your department's digital presence the best it can possibly be. Those people are the users of your information or services.

For our users, is a tool to get things done. Some sections of the platform cater for general users, such as information about our courses or directions to campus. Other sections of the platform serve very specific groups of users, like the content management system used by our publishers or guidance for alumni mentors.

Putting users’ needs first assumes that what’s best for our users is what’s best for the University. So when we are designing, developing or creating content for, our users and their need for quick and simple access to information and tools are informing and motivating our every effort.

How we develop an understanding of user needs

Putting users first is just lofty principle unless we make a concerted effort to learn about our users. We need to continually work away at developing a better understanding of how our ‘users’ breakdown into cohorts, what the needs of those cohorts are, and how they would like those needs to be met.

Some other organisations benefit from the budgets or the specialist in-house staff to maintain a continuous flow of user research being fed into their digital development processes. We have neither, but we haven't let that frustrate us.

What we have is a burning desire to know more about our users. We learn from the best experiences of others, we get everyone in the Digital team involved in running user research, and we take advantage of a wide range of methods to access the quantitative and qualitative insight into user attitudes and behaviours that we need.

Here are some examples of the methods we’ve used in developing our understanding of user needs and that have led to improvements in the University’s digital products and services:

  • Analytics from Google Analytics, Crazy Egg and other applications like Twitter are our most readily available sources of information about platform traffic, what users clicked on and the technology they used to do it. Studying page analytics recently caused us to review what we thought we knew about paths that people from overseas take through our site when they are applying to study at Bath.
  • Questionnaires have proven to be useful on occasion. For example, we ask every user of our support desk to complete a survey when their ticket has been closed. The responses reveal levels of satisfaction and have pointed toward improvements we can make to how we deliver support.
  • Pop-up research involves turning up in a location frequented by our users and asking them to do perform very quick tests of a prototype or an existing feature. We’ve used this technique to good effect. For example, last summer members of the Digital team took iPads out onto campus and asked Open Day attendees to test a suite of new content and functionality that will make attending Open Days easier and more productive.
  • In-depth semi-structured user interviews where we meet individual users - remotely or in-person - and ask them questions or to complete a set of tasks have been very effective for us. For instance, we have run a regular series of task-based interviews with CMS users during the Alpha and the current Beta phases of the new CMS, the output of which has guided us on which features to build and in what order.

Why we want to do more

There are some other user research methods that we are very keen to start using, such as multivariate testing, ethnographic research, eye-tracking studies, focus groups and the keeping of user diaries. We would also like to run some large sample testing, and to get some independent research done by an external agency (possibly in parallel to our testing to cross-check our findings).

Spending time talking with users and getting them to test our products and services is something that we think about all the time. We are always looking for opportunities in which to bring users into our development, design and editorial processes.

Users and their needs evolve, so understanding them has to be an ongoing process. You have to invest time and effort and build expertise. But the more you put in, the more you get back, and the better the University’s digital domain will become.

We are at our most satisfied with our work when we have that close interaction with our users and we know that we have addressed their feedback and requests in ways that makes more informative and helpful. Yet we have never felt that we are doing enough user research.

How you can do your own user research

Recently, the Alumni and the Library department teams have stepped forward and led their own user research. With initial guidance from Digital on methods and techniques, Alumni and the Library took advantage of their direct, everyday interactions with users to get the best possible insight into what is working and what would make their content, features and processes even better.

The output of these exercises was helpful to Digital, but it also offered Alumni and the Library valuable, new insight into the performance of their services beyond the web.

We see the move to the new as a massive opportunity; one in which more teams around the University do user research directly and regularly. Combine this information with insight from other applications, helpdesks and market research, share it and we will collectively build a detailed picture over time of where we are doing a good job and what we could do to make it even better.

If we work in partnership, the resource cost of user research will drop and the return will sky-rocket, with applications beyond just the digital domain.

How to get started

User research can be carried out on any size of project and at any stage. Digital has the experience and materials to support any and every team that wants to get out in front of their online users. We will help you turn that insight into improvements to your digital presence and we guarantee that you will find it one of the most rewarding things you have done in your time at Bath.

If you would like to know more about carrying out user research for your department, email me at

Posted in: Agile, Digital transformation, User research