The Three P’s of UX Design Research
UX Designers like to talk about the people who use their products or services: putting the user first, keeping the user in mind, solving REAL problems for REAL people. Yet for all of this kind of talk, many designers are still not spending a lot of time doing research before putting pen to paper or requirement to spreadsheet. I don’t want to wade too deeply into why this is - plenty of qualified people are getting in on that debate, myself included, but this post isn’t about that.
Instead, I want to make one suggestion - maybe you’re not doing a lot of research because you’re just not that good at it. Hear me out here… if you don’t go skiing often, chances are you’re not very good at skiing. Not being good at skiing means that you don’t fight for opportunities to go. You haven’t spent enough time on the mountain to learn to love it and feel confident with it, so you don’t work to create opportunities to practice even more.
Maybe our UX Research practices are like that too, to some extent. Maybe it’s not just budgets and schedules that keep us from doing research, but also that we’re scared of doing it wrong. Brainstorming, sketching, wireframing, and the rest of design execution are fun and easily accessible - it’s something you can practice in a vacuum. Design research involves wading into the tedious and messy world of talking to lots of other people, and it’s a daunting thing to undertake. I know we don’t want to admit this, but I bet a lot of us cave a little too quickly and maybe even breathe a sigh of relief when the research budget gets cut.
With that in mind, I’d like to consider three phases to design research and explore some ways that we can improve each of them.
First and foremost, do you even pitch with research? Take a look at the last project you proposed or client you visited - how much of that pitch deck is glossy comps of past projects or sketches of new ideas, and how much of it speaks to your research process? If your research process isn’t clearly defined and described as a part of design itself, is it any wonder that you’re not getting enough time or money to do it?
The next time you go to propose a new project, consider what it would look like to make research as much as 90% of your pitch. I’m not saying that’s where you’ll wind up, but start there and see what happens. Don’t describe your solution to the problem; describe how you’ll go about solving the problem - the people you’ll talk to, and the data you’ll collect. Describe your process, and make sure that research is the star of that show. And speaking of your design research process, let’s consider that next.
How well do you know your design research process? Specifically, how long does it take to do, and what do you produce?
Defining and clearly articulating a baseline for this is important for pitching research, but also important for getting the research portion of your process started quickly. Design research often follows a typical scientific research process: define the question to be answered or a hypothesis to be tested, then an experiment, followed by analysis. The experiment itself often involves some amount of preparation as well, whether it’s recruiting participants or preparing prototypes.
You might consider defining several research process baselines - one for qualitative research and another for quantitative, or maybe different baselines for information gathering and inquiry vs. evaluation and testing. There’s no one-size-fits-all method to research, but by having a few well defined starting points you can confidently explain to your stakeholders when why you implement the different methods in your practice, and how those methods find problems and create ideas.
Lastly, ask yourself this question and be honest: do you really know how design research methods work? For example, when should one do customer interviews? How many interviews are appropriate to answer which types of questions? How do you prepare a survey? When is it appropriate to have a variable survey answer on a scale of 1-3 (often) vs. 1-5 (rarely) or even 1-10 (I’d argue never, but many of you seem to disagree)?
When would you produce a journey map to document your research and when would you produce personas?
Many designers I meet are experienced with conducting research activities or producing research deliverables and maybe even analyzing research data, but very few have a really good grasp of why or when to implement the different research methods in their tool belt. Unfortunately why and when are the most important questions to start with. If we’re not not asking those questions or not able to produce the answers then we’re unable to do research properly when given the opportunity, or push for it when it’s needed.
The only remedy to this is to simply practice and read. The next time you attend a UX conference, attend as many of the research talks or workshops as you can. Follow good practitioners and get into their process and literature. Maybe even contact some and ask them things like how they’d structure a survey or when they’d conduct one. Designers are famously friendly people who enjoy helping others along the path. Use this to your advantage. Then use what you learn on the world around you - do contextual inquiry in light bursts whenever you see someone using a new piece of technology, or send a survey to your friends about their email habits just to practice your survey technique. Get feedback and improve your confidence.
If you start honing your UX design research practice, confidently articulating your process, and are regularly pitching with research, you’ll find that research becomes a regular part of your design projects. Research won’t have to compete with the rest of design for time and budget; research will become as embedded and natural a part of design as sketching or wireframing. See you on the slopes.