For people who are just getting started in user experience, I think one area that can seem daunting is usability research. To put it simply, usability research is the process of evaluating how people perceive and use a product — drawing insights from observing them interact with it.

It doesn’t have to be a overly complicated, time consuming, or expensive process. However, I don’t advocate the “coffee shop” method that some people talk about. Sitting in a Starbucks and asking random people what they think of your product is not taking into account the most important factor of all — who that person is and whether or not they are the intended type of person for your product.

Sure, if you want a quick gut reaction or a set of fresh eyes, I suppose the coffee shop method is good. But please, please, please consider the context of that feedback! I’ve seen a few bad ideas be validated or good ideas be ruined by this exercise!

Instead, consider taking a more controlled approach and do some simple usability research. What this really entails is finding some people who are your intended users and sitting with them in person or using a screen-sharing tool such as Skype or JoinMe to observe and record how they interact with your product.

To make the most of the exercise, it helps to prepare some questions and more importantly, some specific tasks that you want to see if they can accomplish.

The other day I stumbled upon this great usability research example for ZipCar that Steve Krug conducted. It’s definitely worth a watch. Pay attention to the types of questions the person asks. Be careful to not ask questions that elicit a yes or no response. You want to get the person talking so you can hear inside their head.

I find the real value in usability research is that it helps stakeholders all see where improvements need to be made or where things are performing very well.

Of course, website analytics and logging data could indicate some of the same observations that come from watching someone  use your product. A common problem is that not everyone responds well to data. However, it’s hard to argue about problems if for example you present a video of five people all struggling to complete the same task.

If you’re interested in learning more about usability research or seeing more usability research examples, you should check out Steve Krug’s book Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide To Finding & Fixing Usability Problems.