Involving Usability Research in Google’s Design Process

A key part of the design process is understanding the people you are designing for. This is typically done by talking to said people or walking them through your product in a usability session. In my day to day work at Google, my work focuses more on developing user flows and designing interactions, so I find that I don’t always play a key part in researching and understanding the end users of my product.

Even though designers at Google may not conduct research on their own, they work with researchers to connect with their users. Here are some practices around collaborating with user researchers to help you prepare and conduct studies, and  incorporate a bit of research into your practice if you don’t conduct your own user research anymore.

1. Identify What You Know/Don’t Know

Whenever I start a new project, before building anything, I do research on the problem space I’m designing for. If it’s an existing product, I do competitive analysis, audits, look up existing work surrounding the product, and talk to people working on it to understand what’s been done and what needs to be done. In the current project that I’m working on, I’m essentially building something from the ground up, but I am still able to scope out the issue, the same way  I do with existing products. I can’t compare my product with others right away, but I can validate the need for it, something that needs to be done first before even considering product development.

To Summarize:

  • Look at existing sources within and even outside the company. See what products have done well vs. not so well, and use that as a reference when designing concepts. This is done so that you don’t repeat previous mistakes, but rather build on existing work and understand what makes the best experience when solving for your problem space. If your product doesn’t exist yet, use those best practices to your advantage and make room for challenging existing or new assumptions to innovate within that space.
  • Talk to people who have worked on something similar to what you might want to build. Addressing the first point, this is so that you can build on existing work and understand best practices around designing for the problem, or at least a specific part of it.
  • Listen in to meetings and ask questions. Whenever you start somewhere new, you are not going to know anything, and that’s okay! A way to learn quickly is to meet as many people and attend meetings that are related to what you are working on. This can help answer any assumptions you may have and understand the reasoning behind how decisions are made. Catering your work around your audience will allow you to work more fluidly with everyone.
  • Ask the people who you are working with to be included in meetings that can help you design the product. Even though I’m not part of the engineering team, being a part of weekly engineering syncs helps me stay informed on their work, and it helps me prioritize what parts of the design I need to work on based on what is being built on the engineering end.

Gathering information from different inputs will allow you to start seeing patterns in the information (one methodthat I have found helpful in generating a POV on the problem is organizing information into the ‘what, why and how’ of a given problem space). You will begin to make informed hypotheses that you can test, and eventually get others on board. Ask as many questions as you need to ensure understanding even if you aren’t directly involved in something, and keep your teammates informed about what you learn and how it may be important to the product. For a new product, this is a good opportunity to propose running several tests and to create a product strategy between PM and the user researcher.

2. Sync Up With Your Fellow User Researcher

As an interaction designer at Google, you won’t be taking on the full role as a UX researcher because a UX researcher is a full-time job. A UX researcher at Google is in charge of helping designers conduct studies around the design they are building and will work together with UX and PM to confirm assumptions, measure metrics that connect to meeting business objectives and ensure the best user experience. Along with the interaction designer, a UX researcher plays a crucial part in advocating for the user by providing a wide assortment of data to communicate actionable decisions or recommendations to dictate product direction and the design itself.

An example is when I was collaborating with a user researcher on the project I’m currently working on:

  • One of the first things I did when meeting the UX researcher was to provide them with context for the project. This was my understanding of the requirements and where I was in the design project. Providing this information helped the researcher understand whether or not usability research was something we should do at this step. Because of constraining deadlines and the fact that we are working on an enterprise product – something we can’t test in a scrappy format because our partnerships could be at stake-, we opted to perform a format lit review around existing products similar to what we were building to analyse how they catered to different user bases.
  • Go over what we want to test. Even though we couldn’t test our product at the moment, it still made sense to do secondary research and make a test plan around that. Secondary research allows us to make informed decisions. It’s a great way to get an understanding in a space that is very technical, and work knowledgeably on a product that is for a very specific audience. This also allows you to specify users and frame the product with more specific objectives.

3. Involve Research in the Process

You might not sync up with the UX researcher all the time, but include them in design reviews and syncs without setting up extra meetings, so that they know what you are up to.

Whenever you have the chance, take part in the planning process. Observe user sessions, attend studies with your users and talk to them in person. At Google, designers often don’t play the research role and don’t have as much interaction with users as researchers do. Observing user sessions will allow you to understand users more deeply and inform your design process as you can directly reference user anecdotes and understand the context behind people’s behavior (I.e. culture, geography, lifestyle, etc.)

Final Notes

Though conducting usability studies are important, the first step is understanding what kind of usability studies you will need to conduct and what you need to test. Especially in a big organization, there are only certain times that you can do research because user researchers tend to be more time limited than UX designers. I aimed to give key tips to involve designers who may work on more specific tasks to be a part of the research phase and the steps we might take before considering the logistics of usability research.

I hope this gives designers a sense of how usability research works in a big organization. For a more technical explanation around conducting usability studies, I have written a few resources (ordered from general to specific) that you will be able to find on under Tiffany Eaton:

The types of design research every designer should know now – A basic overview of the different kinds of usability research that exists. This guide can help you decide what kind of research to conduct for the most relevant insights during any stage of your product.

Introduction to UX Research – A class I teach that guides novice researchers on how to conduct a simple usability session. I provide examples on how to prepare, conduct, and synthesize research insights that can be used right away to design a user-centered product.

A basic guide on how to prepare for your next usability session – This is a good intro on conducting a simple usability session. This article is great for performing a quick session and getting introduced to the process.

Conducting usability research is an essential ux design skill – I break down the process of conducting research in a more granular format, addressing specific steps and what to do in order to make the most of a usability session.

Valuable tips for conducting user research no one really talks about – I go into detail on steps within the usability session that may be overlooked. All steps in research are important to consider, especially when interacting with research participants. This is a good guide that emphasizes the people you will be interviewing and how to make them feel comfortable during every step of the process.

If you want to contribute to next the issue of Phase Magazine, just drop us a line:

Tiffany Eaton Avatar

Tiffany Eaton / Interaction Designer @ Google

Leading by example and empowering others with design