In collaboration with Jasmin Joseph.
The goal of a user research study is to better understand users' behaviors, desires, needs, frustrations, and attitudes through using varying feedback and observation-based research methods. Therefore, it is critical that we as researchers are able to understand and capture the user experience to the best of our ability. This relies in the researcher's ability to listen, as well as the participant's ability to articulate themselves. Sometimes, participants may find it difficult to think of things in the moment or know what to tell researchers. In these instances, it could be helpful for researchers to add an extra step of “pre-work” for the participants to help ensure that the research study is able to illustrate their experience in the most accurate way possible.
For starters, let’s talk about what we mean when we say “pre-work”. Pre-work gives researchers an opportunity to ask participants to carry out various tasks or brainstorm ideas before interviews take places, such as a focus group or one-on-one interview. Implementing pre-work into the research process as well as ensuring that the participant shares the pre-work with the researcher can be beneficial for both the researcher as well as for participants. It provides the moderator with insight into the participants' perceptions, experiences, and opinions before the research. Also, it allows participants the time to gather more information regarding their experiences and gets the participant thinking about what they want to express during the research.
Instances where adding the extra step of “pre-work” would be beneficial is when conducting foundational and exploratory research, and using methods such as focus groups or in-depth interviews. Often times with a more generative phase of research, it is important not to restrict or confine the discussion in a specific direction based on the researcher’s own assumptions of the user experience. Pre-work allows the researcher to become more familiar with user’s perspective, lets participants introduce topics to discuss with the researcher, provides researchers with useful areas to delve deeper, as well as ensures that the researcher manages their valuable interview time with the participant.
Still, it is important to keep in mind pre-work may not be beneficial for all methods, particularly usability testing. With usability testing, it is often helpful to avoid biasing participants with how a site currently works and operates, and during interviews, capture their natural and candid feedback. In such, circumstances pre-work can introduce a preconceived notion for participants on how the experience “should” be like.
Additionally, sometimes during focus groups or interviews, participants can struggle to think of things on the spot or might have difficulty recalling their last experience. Having the added step of “pre-work” could be beneficial in helping participants think of the points they wish to make ahead of time or figure out how best to articulate their experiences. It allows participants to “get into space” before the interview or focus group has even taken place, and can help participants figure out the best ways to articulate their feelings, experiences, or struggles.
Pre-work can look like asking participants to fill out a mobile diary, carry out a brainstorming activity, an online survey, or take photos/videos to provide more context. Having participants carry out a mobile diary or a brainstorming activity can help them to keep track of their emotions and experiences, as well as assist the participants in recollecting during the interview or focus group. Researchers can also set up a short online survey for participants to fill out prior to the research takes place, which can be beneficial to the moderator to utilize during the interview or focus group. Finally, researchers can ask participants to bring in or take photos/videos to provide context for their experiences and help participants articulate concepts that might get lost in translation. All of these pre-work examples serve the same purpose: they help participants arrive at the research site prepared and ready to rock and roll.
While adding pre-work to a usability study may seem like adding another step, however, there are many benefits to pre-work. Adding the extra step of pre-work to a usability study can help to bring out extra information, and even illuminate deeper insights. The goal of pre-work is to help encourage participation, ignite more thoughtful and insightful discussion, and ultimately yield deeper and richer data. Taking the time to add the extra step of pre-work is one small step that can have huge payoffs.