May 09, 2012

Early Research Catches Worms

Elysa Soffer's picture
Elysa Soffer

A few months ago, my project team launched into fast-paced design and development work for a new mobile product we are creating with a client. The goal of this product is to establish a strong connection between the company’s brand and a new audience. To proceed, we needed insights to guide the early designs and conceptual models. So I teamed up with Hot’s newest content strategist, Anna Bloom, to determine the best research method.
As designers, we study what people want so we can deliver the most useful and beautiful products. We previously conducted interviews during the discovery phase of this project to learn more about our target audience. But, at this point, in order to kick off this new phase, we needed more information about the audience’s mental model—how this group would naturally prefer to use an app. We wanted to know if our initial ideas would meet audience expectations and, most importantly, if the tasks were completable and fun. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the gift of time to build a fully functioning prototype to gather the data.
Anna and I proposed an accelerated solution. We leveraged existing wireframes to create paper prototypes that mapped the product’s task flow—the steps within the app. It wasn't a full prototype by any means, but it could give us enough of a direction to confidently move the product forward.

These paper prototypes consisted of rough wireframes with written directions to simulate the digital experience. Each page walked people through the proposed steps—directing them to circle the actions in place of pressing a button, and write in the information rather than typing. On a Friday afternoon, we gathered a dozen participants who represented the core audience for our paper prototype test. It took them about 30 minutes to finish our test.
To augment this data, Anna and I video recorded follow-up interviews with each of the participants. We captured initial responses and emotions, and even ran through sections of the paper prototype aloud to see how they would respond to the prompts in a conversation. This took another 30 minutes. From about an hour's worth of testing and gathering feedback, we ended up with plenty of data to make informed changes.

So what did all this tell our Hot team? In addition to helping us define a specific use case for the product, the research helped us course-correct early on, before development. We shuffled the order of some screens to match our intended audience’s mental model. Our team also identified design changes to improve the consistency and hierarchy across the product. Finally, we fine-tuned the language. The voice and tone was critical to audience engagement with the product. Rather than taking a directional or instructional tone, the research indicated a conversational tone was most effective.

In the end, the research provided critical proof points for our team to refer to. It was quick, dirty, and—as it turns out—worked surprisingly well.
While this paper prototype and other super-lightweight research methods can never replace more comprehensive research, they do provide a good starting point. And if you want to avoid pitfalls and extra work later in a project, then this research isn't just a good idea, it's a necessity.

Elysa Soffer is a Strategist who recently earned her MBA in Design Strategy from California College of the Arts. Since migrating from Philadelphia for the eternal California sunshine, she spends her free time in Dolores Park and exploring San Francisco on her neon orange bike.