User research is probably the most controversial topic in the design process which has received mixed responses from the design community. Some say that user research is extremely overrated while others swear by its effectiveness. Some say that user research can completely be omitted and better results could be achieved from user tests while others say that user research is indispensable to the success of the product.
Why such an extreme gap in the thought? Allow me to explain the rationale behind both of these ideologies.
In favor of user research
User research is a natural first step in the design process. -Nick Babich
Designers who support user research are of the opinion that user research helps them in understanding user behaviors and reactions. They want to avoid the part where they make assumptions about the user, design as per their own whims and fancies and fail miserably after the product’s launch. They rather prefer designing with data that shows who are the users and how they behave.
From my perspective, conducting user research allows you to dive deep beneath the surface of your assumptions and look at what users actually need. And because you’ve to dive deeper, the process of user research is long and uses various techniques to gather inputs. One can’t just do one round of interview with the targeted audience and call it research.
User research often starts with an understanding of the goal/vision of the product and questions such as-
-why are we designing this product,
-for whom are we designing,
-what do we already know about our users,
-what problems do users face while using this product,
-what do we intend to know about our users with user research
Once you have an understanding of your ‘why’, you move on to methods like contextual inquiries, card sorting, interviews, surveys and questionnaires to gather intuitive inputs from real users.
For instance, if you’re designing a school management app, your user research will include interviews and contextual inquiry with the admin staff of various schools. You would be interested in knowing how they spend a regular day in school and what problems they face on a daily basis. Problems like manually adding attendance record of each student into the system and how that process is prone to errors can only be discovered when you sit and listen to them in their work environment.
That’s the advantage of user research. It helps you uncover problems people feel simply through talking and empathizing with others.
Against user research
To design the best UX, pay attention to what users do, not what they say. Self-reported claims are unreliable, as are user speculations about future behavior. Users do not know what they want. – Jakob Nielsen
There are many examples from revered companies like Apple who don’t do market research. They believe that findings from user research can be skewed and nothing can be predicted about the future behavior of users.
Here’s an excerpt from Steve Jobs’ interview where he talked about building iTunes-
“It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do. So you can’t go out and ask people, you know, what’s the next big [thing.] There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, ‘If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse.’’’
One of the designers, Jonathan Courtney writes that–“Up-front User Research is a form of Product Procrastination. It’s busy-work, it’s a way to avoid making hard decisions. It delays the need to make something tangible.”
From my perspective, I think it’s valid if we’re talking about startups who are still at an initial stage and fiddling with an idea. They’re the ones who are running ridiculously fast and they definitely can’t afford to lose even a day or even hours.
Think of it this way- you spend 5-10 days in doing user research and building a product which works as per user expectations. But when you launch it, the users are still clueless or worse, they don’t like it anymore. Welcome to the world of uncertainties!
For this reason, I believe user research is a phase that can be skipped. A better approach is to build the MVP and get to the market fast, take users’ input and reiterate on the feedback.
The final thought
The design process can never be the same for everyone. Nothing is set in stone and, to an extent, it depends on your project and its requirements what approach you should take. User research is one small (but crucial!) part of product development. Therefore, as a designer, one should be ready to adapt as per the project requirements.
User research is more valuable when you are working on a legacy product and you need to enhance the experience of the product. Just make sure you avoid the Deadly Sins of User Research. However, in products where you need to go to market fast, it’s okay to skip user research.
User research, when done right, will help you design a product which matches user expectations. However, it’s not just about using different observation and feedback collection methods to gather user inputs. More than the ‘quantity’ of methods, it’s about the ‘quality’ of user research that you do. It’s about the time you invest in uncovering possibilities, asking the right questions, understanding user needs, wants, and behaviors.
I hope this blog helps you make the right decision to include research in your design process or not. Also, I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Is user research a compulsory thing in your design process? Or, do you do it on a need basis?