User Research in app development - our experience

13. July 2017 - from Milena Rutz

How can user research be integrated into app development? Psychologists Julia, Milena, and Alexandra look back on a year of applied user research at Apps with love and reveal their insights.

The goal was and still is to design our products to even more closely match users' needs in order to continue to create unique experiences with our apps. Integrating user research into our processes takes a lot of hard work. In this article, we reveal how we have approached integrating psychological perspectives into product development, and why this has paid off for us and our customers.

How we see User Research

Right from the start, Apps with love focused on psychology and a sound and innovative application of psychological tools for user research.
Why psychology? Psychology systematically analyses human behaviour and experiences to make findings comprehensible and comparable. This is so important to us because we believe that the full potential of user research can be realised if the selection, preparation, and application of the methods are carefully carried out and the results are systematically analysed and worked up in a comprehensible manner. This means we can provide sound insights and inspirations and not leave the reasons for or against something to chance.

Integrating User Research into existing app development stages

Targeted use of psychological tools in app development should be skilfully tackled in order to avoid hindering processes for everyone involved as much as possible. Our specially developed iRAIV model provides a basis for this.

In summary, this model divides the research activities into four phases (research, analysis, ideation, and validation) and can be easily and scalably integrated into all app development stages such as kick-off workshops, concept development, requirements engineering, and testing.

The aim is to use the appropriate method - interviews, observations, questionnaires, usability testing, or focus groups - to systematically record users' behaviour and experiences and thus better understand them. The right combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods is an art: you have to know not only what users want, but also how, how much, and above all why they want it. Only then can you create the unique experiences that successfully serve users' needs.

But a written model is of course not enough for a collaboration to run smoothly. Step by step, we worked towards embedding a common understanding of UX and user research into the team at Apps with love.

This common understanding forms the basis for speaking the same language when different roles and/or professional disciplines collaborate, in order to structure our work efficiently. Among other things, we organised an intensive team day on the topic and created space for a discussion on the meta-level through specific reflection phases in projects, thus steadily consolidating our understanding and attitude to topics such as design thinking and user research.

The initial User Research activities

We were able to use a variety of methods in various projects. These included, for example, an in-depth competition analysis, qualitative interview studies, prototype testing, various workshops focussing on customer needs, focus groups including screen testing, and quantitative questionnaires. It is particularly important for us to select the methods carefully and depending on the question and to involve the right people for the question. For example, to validate an app idea for designing and ordering postcards, we interviewed a selection of twelve people. We selected a very heterogeneous group in terms of occupation, age, origin, and attitudes by means of a targeted invitation to participate. But all our test subjects had one thing in common: they have an affinity for design and technology and thus represent the defined target group. Thanks to the deliberate sampling, we were able to pool the results in such a way that it was possible to concentrate on essential functions in the app prototype - despite the rather small number of test subjects. In addition, we received a multitude of innovative ideas and interesting insights into the motives and attitudes of the target group, which we were also able to utilise when it came to the marketing strategy. A key finding, for example, was the importance of the high-quality look and feel of the cards, so even before a line of code was written, there was already a marketing question: how can the look and feel of the cards be conveyed in the context of a digital app?

What are our three key lessons?

It takes time and a lot of thought to cleanly conduct a qualitative interview study, from defining the selection criteria to drawing up the guidelines, conducting the interviews to systematically analysing the results - there is no "quick & dirty" shortcut. The presentation of the results then showed that this effort had paid off, because the results had a sound foundation, which made them easy to communicate to both our teammates and our customers. To our customers in particular, we were able to convey a realistic and true-to-life presentation of the user group and their thoughts and attitudes, which went beyond the usual socio-demographic features or trend concepts such as "digital native" or "silver surfer". Fortunately, we also receive corresponding feedback from customers:

The person who has an idea is usually enthusiastic about it. User research shows whether the idea is actually being accepted on the market - bluntly and directly. Apps with love applied this effective method to our idea. Professionally and competently."

Monika Mingot, Content/Text & Social Media, Linkgroup AG

From the outset, integrating financially justifiable user research activities into the tendering process for new customer projects required reducing the methodological diversity and lowering our methodological standards. Nevertheless, we succeeded in convincing our clients of the added value of user research, so that such activities are integrated into most new projects. However, it remains a challenge to decide whether user research at a high level is indispensable in individual cases or whether to offer it on a reduced scale. Scaling the methods as minor or major tasks that can be adapted to the process and the project is therefore crucial and requires practice and experience.
In this regard, integrating our user research findings into major agile projects proved a tough nut to crack. An agile, iterative development process requires direct consultation with the various subproject teams and fast decision-making processes to drive the development of the app forward based on the latest insights. This can be a challenge, especially in large projects involving lots of people.

In addition, at times we found ourselves facing methodical conflicts: we are happy to offer our customers tangible, visually appealing prototypes. Such prototypes facilitate understanding of the product and often act as a means of communication in interacting with users. On the one hand, this carries the risk that the focus during testing will be on usability aspects rather than on evaluating the app concept at an early stage. On the other hand, the existing concept may be fundamentally changed due to the insights and the findings may require joint translation work for the further development of the prototype. It is important to make it clear that the user needs we identify do not yet entail ready-made app solutions. These are worked out together in a team, and sometimes with customers as well, in a subsequent step. This process requires that everyone involved accepts the chosen methodical approach and has the courage to try it out.

Our experiences spur us on to dive further into the world of users and above all to constantly develop our methods further so that they can be used even more agilely and scalably. We also enjoy experimenting and finding out what the best UX methods are for app development. For example, we are thinking about the future application of methods such as online communities, diaries, or design sprints and see potential in analytics to constantly adapt our existing apps to the latest trends and user preferences.

We'll keep working on it and look forward to reporting back.

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