I’d just presented a draft of research outputs to a group of stakeholders.

“But what about everybody else?!”

I’d explained we’d booked in between 3 and 10 users per group for this particular project.

“But that’s not the majority or even half of our customer groups!!” was the exclamation and incredulity at those numbers.

The client was a large organisation with fairly diverse services, products and user groups. They were becoming more user-centred and making swathes of impactful changes that needed user understanding for guidance.

I’ve heard this common concern on sample numbers across many organisations, both public and private sector as a User Researcher.

Here is the reasoning behind sample sizes when conducting exploratory user research and how to use that research.


It’s quality over quantity

With exploratory research the focus is to gather goals, needs, pain points, behaviours, and, or other aspects, depending on your specific project’s research aims. It is more important that the participants are from your organisation’s audiences, meeting criteria that avoids bias, as well as achieves the research aims. This way you’ll be gaining insight true to the actual reality that your audiences experience your services and products within.

It is not about discovering every possible angle of all user groups.


Enough is when you start identifying common patterns

Participant numbers should be enough to start identifying common patterns within user groups. You can then start designing with greater confidence that your service or product will meet the reality that your users live within.

For example, I was working at a conference, carrying out short form interviews, and every other person would raise similar points;

“I need to be able to rely on x information to make decisions for the business”, “it’s important that my information sources are as correct as possible”, “I need to know where this information came from”.

A common pattern emerged within only 4 interviews in the same user group. The themes of “credibility” and “validity” of the information emerged strongly. This then became a design principle, reflected in the interface, with simple navigation to drill down to this information.


What to do with the research

You take that research and, depending on what your research aims were, use it to:
  • Use it when making any changes to ensure they meet user needs
  • Tell your organisation who their users are and how that research can be used.
  • Design further research where more detail is needed, to help answer questions more specific to a particular change.


And how do we do that?

You have a wealth of valuable information, so make the most of it!
Here’s a bit more detail on the above:
  • Select problems to solve or make something easier
    Take one of their tasks and pain points, learned from their reality. Brainstorm solutions to these, taking into account their context.
  • Raise that visibility and challenge pre-conceptions
    Share it at the top, to ensure decision-makers know to use it when change is intended, before decisions are made. Share it with the project’s senior leadership and ground-level project teams on other service or product projects. Deliver it with the message on how to use it.
  • Refer to it to do more granular research when you’re making changes.
    Questions will be raised as prototypes of products and services are developed, concerns need to be settled, “If we break up that form into screens, we’ll lose people!”. This is where you go deep, rather than broad to learn, test and adapt ideas without causing pain across the overall user journey, while operating in their context.
  • Create design principles
    For example, were they time-poor? “Make it quick and simple”, “Support advanced users”. Were some of their activities time-sensitive? “Help them meet deadlines well in advance”, “Give them the best chance of success” and tie relevant measures back to these.
  • Refer to the research as you come up with changes to services or products
    This helps ensure that changes suit users and create journeys without ‘friction’. Context should always be considered before going too far with time, effort and budget, in making design decisions that won’t work.


For more information regarding User Research or anything in the above article, please email charlotte.lewis@methods.co.uk or call 0207 240 1121.

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