User research has come a long way in the last decade. But rapidly evolving technology has left room for new research processes. I spoke to Brendan Donoghue, Head of Customer Experience at UniSuper, to discuss how far user research has come and how his team is pushing it even further.

UniSuper provides superannuation services to employees of Australia’s higher education and research sector. At the core of UniSuper’s values is a genuine care for their members. They want people to have a better retirement; this starts with reviewing the experiences UniSuper delivers.

Brendan leads a team of designers who are passionate about uncovering deep insights through collaboration, journey mapping, and continuous research. But Brendan admits that his previous employers have not always been supportive of user research.  

“Early in my career I would get into trouble for talking to customers. I would literally call customers and ask them how they felt about something. But now I’ve worked in organisations where if you’re not talking to your customers it’s seen as a negative. We’ve definitely progressed.”  

Brendan established behaviours within his current team that he believes are the key to successful design. This includes working face-to-face with customers to develop journey mapping. If you’re only talking to your customers occasionally and from a distance, “you’re [only] illuminating part of a dark room. Face-to-face research is turning on the light.”

Brendan’s team has built an iterative testing program that runs every two to three weeks. This includes usability tests, concept tests, and journey maps. A continuous and repeatable program helps them to understand the problem space at every stage of the design process and requires collaboration.

Building the best experiences for your consumers starts with looking internally at the structure of your team. Rather than defining his team members by function, Brendan wants everyone to be a part of a project from start to finish.

“I think that there is a movement at the moment in the industry to shift away from this pigeon-holing of people. As designers we are innately creative and disruptive people, and yet so many organisations are putting designers into these smaller and smaller boxes. We want people who are keen to burst out of that box.”

Brendan’s experience and design team are embedded throughout the organisation. This helps to immerse each team member in the project and bring people on the user journey. Forming relationships with people outside of the team will inevitably result in well rounded experiences with input from all facets of the company.

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Top tips from Brendan on running your user test

Have a dedicated researcher outside of your immediate team

It’s really important that designers don’t test their own work or influence the way the test is run. The best thing about having a dedicated tester outside of the direct team is that they are able to give honest, open feedback without fear of retribution.

Be open to feedback within your team

Whilst this tip is not specific to design teams, it is important to actively encourage honest feedback from your team. Producing the best outcome is not just about talking to your consumers. It involves building a team culture where people feel comfortable to openly share their opinions.

Build rapport

Try to build rapport with your participants as quickly as possible. The sooner they start to feel comfortable, the more they will open up and deliver great insights. Very often it is what is said in the last 15 minutes of the interview that is the most important, so try to structure your questions to account for this.

Be Bold!

As designers we are speaking on behalf of the customer, so we owe it to them to be bold. We are not just there to serve the needs of the organisation. We are there to agitate the system and push the organisation to be more customer-centric.

Build it and they’ll come

You’ll never do enough testing if you don’t make time for it. By creating a gap in the calendar for user research, you’ll naturally create a culture where it is valued.

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