Enhancing User Research with Emerging Technology

May 14, 2010

As technology evolves and new gadgets and electronics emerge in the marketplace, our options for the use of technology in conducting our user research continue to expand. The processes through which we have long gathered data—such as surveys and interviews—are no longer the only ways in which we can understand people and how they respond to our clients’ products and services. As professional user researchers, we have the opportunity to devise new and innovative ways of more accurately understanding user experience through the use of technology. For example, consider the following user research scenario:

A client contacts our company because they’re interested in developing technology to reduce the amount of time it takes for patients to receive treatment from their physicians. The client states that they’re interested in understanding what changes they could make to enhance the overall patient experience, while reducing the time patient-physician interactions take. As our team discusses how best to approach the project, the common methods of user research for this type of project quickly emerge—expert interviews with physicians and nurses, patient journaling, patient and physician shadowing, and basic observation. All of these techniques are very effective for gathering insights, but they don’t take advantage of improvements in technology that are readily available to us.

Employing Technology in User Research

Armed with an up-to-date understanding of technological advancements and a creative thought process, we can innovate new and powerful ways of observing and studying user behavior—approaches that were completely impractical just a few years ago. Here are a few innovative ideas for improving user research methods in specific contexts, using technology that is cheap and at our fingertips.

  1. Attach a small digital video camera to a patient’s clothing—somewhere it isn’t noticeable—and record the patient’s interactions with a physician and other medical staff, then observe the raw footage of their interactions. Do the same with nurses and doctors and compare their different perspectives. Couple this data with patient journaling and follow-up interviews to better understand the difference between what a patient says and what actually happens. The value of this approach is the ability to see and hear the patient’s experience and search for patterns of discomfort that we could overcome, enhancing the user experience.
  2. Attach a heart-rate monitor to a patient’s chest and record indications of stress or discomfort. You could either accompany a patient to observe a doctor’s visit or couple this approach with the video camera option we just described. The heart-rate data this approach lets you obtain can illuminate the points in the patient experience that cause stress, anxiety, or frustration—especially when you integrate this data with interviews. For example, if the greatest fluctuation in a patient’s heart rate occurred when the doctor entered the examination room to see the patient, a subsequent interview might reveal that the patient felt extremely anxious while waiting for the doctor, because he had no idea how long the wait would be. This information could lead to a redesign of the patient experience to include a visual report of the amount of time a patient would have to wait for a doctor or simply providing some distractions like games or a small television in the examination room to reduce the patient’s anxiety. This type of data can directly pinpoint opportunities for improving the user experience.
  3. Have nurses wear a pedometer that records the number of steps they take during or between activities. For example, it might be interesting to learn how many steps a nurse takes when seeing a patient. A nurse might guide a patient to an examination room, then walk back to the nurses’ station to retrieve the equipment that’s necessary to obtain relevant diagnostic information. Perhaps, under certain conditions, a nurse might have to walk to the nurses’ station, then to a supply room to find something that’s not in common use. Such data would help you to understand how much time nurses spend walking between different exam rooms, doctors’ offices, nurses’ stations, and supply rooms—key information when redesigning their workspace to increase efficiency.

With a little creativity in our use of technology, we can gather data in ways that paint a more complete picture of an overall user experience. Using technology to gather data provides objective measures of people’s behavior, so can enhance our traditional subjective measures of user experience by allowing us to ask research participants about things we’ve noticed in the recorded data. For example, after looking at pedometer data, you might ask a nurse why she had to walk to a supply closet three times for a single patient.

These approaches should not replace more traditional ways of understanding user experience. Instead, we should use them to enhance our current research methods. Of course, these research approaches might be inappropriate in particular situations, and there might be times when they would prove to be unnecessary. However, even when they would be appropriate and could provide some value to our understanding of a user experience, there might still be potential roadblocks to implementing these kinds of approaches.


Tight budgets can stifle innovation in user research, but what is most important is not the size of the budget, but how it is spent. Stakeholders’ primary goal for user research is to obtain solid data that would help propel a design project in the right direction and enhance the experience people have with their product or service. Therefore, if you can outline the benefits of an approach and provide adequate justification for its cost, your chances of obtaining project approval increase radically. The cost of performing innovative research with new and emerging technology is much cheaper than it was ten years ago. Therefore, we can much more easily stretch our capabilities and justify new approaches to user research. Furthermore, technology purchases are a one-time cost, allowing you to increase the value of all subsequent research, while maintaining consistent labor costs, creating a win-win situation for everyone.

Need for Training

Conducting the type of research we’ve suggested takes a trained user research professional. Individuals who do not have a background in research design might find it challenging to develop strategies for handling a large volume data and incorporating it into a story. You can mitigate this issue either by engaging a user research consultant to conduct a study for you or by hiring people who have a formal educational background in user research. If neither is an option, consider bringing in a user researcher to extract and analyze your data. Human knowledge is our greatest asset, and there is tremendous value to a team approach to user research.


Any researcher has the ability to develop new and innovative ways of conducting user research. But we sometimes let tradition and routine dictate the way we do things. When brainstorming ways of conducting user research to better understand your users, foster a team environment that promotes thinking outside the box. This can be challenging if some of the people you are working with are tied to a certain way of doing things. If that is the case, try to bring at least one person into your group who thinks creatively and have them lead discussions. This is a very effective way of shaking up a group and helps stimulate new ideas.

Bringing It All Together

Let’s take another look at the example project we described earlier and summarize the possible impacts of using the research approaches we’ve proposed for such a situation. When a patient walks into a doctor’s office wearing a pedometer, heart-rate monitor, and video camera, we can discover some very interesting insights.

First, if the heart-rate monitor indicated the patient’s heart rate increased drastically at the moment he touched the handle on the office door, this would demonstrate that the patient’s stress began at the moment he entered the facility. The pedometer recorded 72 steps to reach the reception desk. We noticed on the video camera’s feed that the receptionist never looked at the patient until he had provided his name and appointment time. This validated a complaint several people had mentioned in a pre-study interview with people who frequent hospitals and doctors’ offices.

The pedometer recorded that it took another 30 steps to enter the waiting area for patients, and the heart-rate monitor recorded a slowing of his heart rate almost immediately. This is a very good sign, because the physicians we interviewed had reported a desire to design their waiting rooms for patients’ maximum comfort and relaxation. However, a few minutes into the wait, the researchers noticed a spike in the patient’s heart rate, which occurred repeatedly, at sporadic intervals. These spikes coincided with each time a door opened and a nurse called for patients to walk to an exam room. This indicated to our team that the opening of the door acted as a trigger for stress.

However, once the nurse called the patient into an exam room, his heart rate slowly decreased from its stressed level until the moment the physician entered the room. Pedometer and camera recordings indicated that the patient had to walk over 300 steps to reach the exam room, and the camera showed that the nurse said only a few words to the patient during that long walk.

It’s surprising how much insight you can gain about the process of visiting a doctor’s office by combining the use of technology with traditional methods of user research. And these are just a few examples of the many different types of data you could gather using the research methods we’ve presented here.

In Conclusion

If you correlate the objective data you can obtain using technology with subjective data such as interviews, you can gain unexpected insights about user experiences. Plus, that objective data can help you see additional opportunities for innovation and stimulate thoughtful discussions about other new and creative approaches to user research. At the end of the day, design research is about understanding how people respond to and interact with the world around them.

By gathering data in new and innovative ways, you can get a step closer to walking in your users’ shoes and truly understanding what people want and need. If, as user researchers, we continue to expand our capabilities and keep learning and trying new approaches to understanding people, we will thrive in the creation of useful and amazing products.