The Value Proposition of User Research
Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with a few individuals on separate occasions, each considering beginning a career in User Experience. Our conversations touched on many different aspects of working as a UX professional and each time, the same question inevitably came up, “What do you like most about working in UX?”. In each conversation, I was excited to dive deeper and share my passion for user research. User research is the study and investigation of individuals to understand what they are thinking, doing, and feeling. It informs the creation of strategy and the design of products. It allows us to empathize with our target audience. While there are many different methods and techniques that can be used, they all work towards the same goal, creating empathy with the user. Our ability to understand and share in what our users are thinking, feeling, and doing is the foundation of a human-centered design process.
There’s a quote commonly mentioned on this topic by Henry Ford where he is credited with saying, “If I’d asked my customers what they’d wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”. Whether he said this or not, there is truth in the sentiment that users can’t always tell you what they want or need in the clearest terms. Or, they may say they know exactly what’s needed, but don’t realize that jumping straight to a solution may limit the ability to innovate altogether. So rather than just plainly asking, what do you need or want, we gain empathy by immersing ourselves in their environment to learn their needs, goals, and challenges. We observe their behaviors in the context of how they live and work, engaging with them, and sharing with them in their experiences.
We live in a time of attention scarcity, where consumers are constantly being bombarded with information. In order to continue building successful digital products, we must ensure that we are meeting the right needs, reducing friction, and ultimately delighting the customer. It is the work of user research that shows us what their needs are, where the biggest challenges exist and understand our opportunity to delight.
Although this need for research seems obvious, in my professional practice I’ve commonly encountered obstacles while working to gain organizational buy-in to invest in research efforts. I’ve also heard the topic come up at meetup discussions and amongst user groups. UX professionals often struggle with resistance to engaging with users as part of their process. In a recent blog post, my colleague John McRee shared the same challenge, “Struggling to convince clients and stakeholders to intentionally include design research as part of their design and development process is a theme I’ve encountered throughout my entire career.”
So how do we overcome these objections? How do we advocate for the user and educate our organizations on the value of understanding their customers’ needs, goals, and context?
In her book, Just Enough Research, Erika Hall discusses some of the common objections to including research as part of a design process. She mentions common complaints such as “we don’t have enough time” or “we know the problem already” and does an excellent job articulating responses to each of these. But rather than just sharing her rebuttals (highly recommend checking out her book for them & other guidance), let’s look instead at what we have to gain by doing design research.
Let’s first look at it from a business perspective. Why should organizations give the green light to invest more time and money early in the design process? User research as part of a human-centered design process may take more time and cost investment up-front, but the payoff can be significant. A recent research study revealed these statistics:
Source: Experience Dynamics
The statistics are powerful, but there is more to it than just the measurable aspects of a project, the ‘hidden ROI’. More difficult to measure, a user experience that is designed and crafted out of a foundation of empathy can help reduce the cost of customer acquisition and retention, lower support costs, and increase market share - all contributing to a healthier bottom line.
Not only is there a significant financial gain in store for the business, but there’s also a lot to be gained by the designers and project team. User research helps strategists and designers to…
- Invent possible futures and uncover opportunities to innovate
- Evaluate the need and usefulness of identified functionality
- Provide justification for design decisions
- Create a neutral ‘voice’ in the design process
The notion of creating a neutral voice in the design process is paramount. Teams will come to decisions faster, gain leadership buy-in sooner, and focus on solving the right problems first. The better we understand the user, the more closely aligned the project community will be.
There is definitely much to be gained, but maybe it sounds expensive and lengthy? Not necessarily. Planning the right mix of quantitative and qualitative research methods will help determine sample sizes. Research studies have shown that “with 5 users, you almost always get close to user testing’s maximum benefit-cost ratio.” The goal is to maximize the return on investment from the research. With each session/participant added to a research study, the cost increases, yet after 5-7 users, the findings remain relatively consistent, thus you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.
Ultimately user research and testing should be an iterative process so that as new knowledge comes in, project teams can grow and adapt as their understanding of the user’s experience develops.