What is it? Is it worth it? Can't I just do that myself? Don't I already know that? They're all commonly heard by User Researchers. One of our own, Emily Hewitson, is tired of that. Here, she expertly puts to bed the myths and misunderstandings that plague User Research and prevent organisations from ever developing products or services that truly meet their potential.
User experience research is a responsibility like no other. In addition to working with fellow researchers as a team, we must also work alongside actual product users. The output of this collaboration is the creation of products that can boast genuinely great user experiences.
Nevertheless, user experience research is a three-word phrase that often still raises the eyebrows of anyone from industry leading CTOs to friends and family. Rather than understood as a blindingly obvious shortcut to better user experience, happier users and frequently more of them, misconceptions remain rife - as illustrated perfectly by the Emma Boulton's thread over on Twitter.
User research myth #1: "We can set up a diary study and leave it running"— Emma Boulton (@emmaboulton) January 8, 2019
Anything involving participants needs management throughout the process, not just at the start and the end. Participants need warming up, keeping on track and feeling like their contribution is valued.
Here, I aim to put to bed some of the misinterpretations of, misunderstandings about and outright myths associated with user research.
What is user research?
Out in the wilderness of the internet is an abundance of definitions of user research, and just as many opinions concerning its fit and position within the product development process. To save you the effort (and prevent you getting sidetracked), I'm gonna share a mashup of my favourites, those that I believe define user research well.
User research is the umbrella phrase for the study of your users. All user research places real people and their needs at the centre of the design process (and consequently the foundation of your products). By studying users to understand their characteristics, aims and behaviour patterns, we inform designs with user needs. The ultimate purpose of user research is to inform and inspire design - doing so increases the likelihood of creating products that users find easy, engaging and enjoyable to use.
"So what is a user researcher then", I hear you cry?
Well, of course, we're the people who conduct and facilitates all of that action.
"Is it just a lot of Googling and usability testing, then?"
Okay, so user research can and does include both these elements. But it's incredibly naive to assume that user researchers are just search engine messiahs, and anyone who knows a user researcher will know we're not big on assumptions.
As a user researcher, assumptions are one of Emily's few enemies.
User research applies scientific principles to create the opportunity for and ensure the reliability of feedback. This feedback essentially acts as data - and will be treated as such once it has been placed deeper under the microscope via any other appropriate activities such as thematic analysis or comparison with relevant theory.
In its most basic form, you can conduct research using quantitative or qualitative methods (or a combination of the two). The choice of which method(s) to use should be entirely dependent on the questions the researcher is looking to answer.
Tools you'll find in the quantitative research toolbox will often include surveys, eye tracking, controlled laboratory or field testing and more. Researchers dipping into the qualitative kit meanwhile will employ techniques such as ethnographic studies, scenarios, personas, focus groups, prototyping and the like.
"Wouldn't it be easier to ask users what they want?"
It might seem nonsensical on the face of things, but the simple answer to this question is no.
Asking your users what they almost always returns a cluster of irrelevant ideas around how to do something - most to all of which fail to take into account the issue itself. Inevitably, the chosen idea will resultantly fail to solve the problem.
Emily pictured conducting a workshop with Northumbrian Water customers.
People aren't particularly good at describing their normal behaviour to others because it isn't in their nature. It's far more effective to ask users what frustrates them, what challenges they currently face and how they combat arising issues.
Asking users what they want may well help you to understand what they want, but focusing on the problem helps to create a distinction between desires and needs. As a result, researchers empower designers with the information they need to create a solution to a problem instead of wasting time on formulating a plan with a limited chance of success.
And finally my favourite of all the questions...
"Doesn’t it cost a lot of money?"
The long and the short of this question is that it can.
There are plenty of ways to reach your users that cost very little time and money, such as small sessions of guerilla testing, observation and short interviews. These can all provide valuable initial information. However, the most effective research does take time and will cost money.
Nevertheless, it is best to think of user research as an investment in your product. Without validating designs and features by talking with end users, you are essentially making it more difficult for them to justify the cost of using your product or service.
Creating a product without talking to and understanding your users will often lead to a product, or at least features within a product, that do not fulfil user needs. Whether you're left red-faced or willing to put your pride aside will be irrelevant, you'll end up paying a whole lot more for someone to design and build a solution to these 'new' problems.
Hopefully, by this point, you'd be sensible enough to use user researchers this time around anyway, but the reality is that by then it might already be too late. Far from scaremongering, users are a fickle bunch, and if they can't get what they need from your product, they will find someone else who can offer it.
You can eliminate that risk simply by understanding the value of user research.
So there you have it. I've answered the thoughts and questions I hear most often, and I hope that it has helped demystify research for you. With any luck, you might even pass it on to your family, friends and that CTO.
What do you think of user research? Have any questions for Emily and our team? Drop a comment below or get in touch with us via @hedgehoglabUXR.
Enjoy Emily's undoubted wisdom? Check out her blog on the psychology principles that can help designers to craft better products.