Anybody’s Guess: Why Research Matters
Valle Hansen

As a user researcher, I am, of course, an evangelist of all things research. I love research! I love reading everything and learning everything and understanding everything I possibly can about a subject. Infographics are neat but I want more more more information! Give it to me—all of it!

As a user researcher, I also, of course, realize that not everybody feels the same way. Often including clients.

Do We Have to Research?

Clients don’t like to do research (okay, many of you do; you don’t have to keep reading). They have protests and excuses and comments that expose more a lack of understanding of the value of research than any real desire to eschew a major step in our process.

And the thing is, their protests make sense, on the surface.

  1. “You guys are the UX experts; don’t you know what you’re talking about? Why do we need to talk to users?” or
  2. “We have all the information and data you need about our users.” or
  3. “We know our users better than our users know themselves.” or
  4. “Yikes. That sounds expensive.” or
  5. “Can’t we design and then do research?” or
  6. “Research seems to take a lot of time.”

Here’s what all these questions/concerns/excuses have in common: They’re not sound. (Well, except for the expensive part. Research is expensive, sometimes. But so is design. Especially a beautiful design that doesn’t work for users and thus needs to be redesigned…with research.) They make it look like bypassing research is an easy way to get faster designs. But it’s not! It’s quite the opposite, in fact.

Let’s take a closer look at these protests.

1. “You guys are the UX experts; don’t you know what you’re talking about? Why do we need to talk to users?”

Yes, we’re experts! But we’re not inside the minds of your end-users. We aren’t the end-user of your product (and neither are you, usually). Users are not all created equal. What’s true of one set of users is not necessarily true of another set. And we suspect your users are unique in more ways than one. In order to design a product for your end-users, we don’t want to try to pretend we’re those users. We want to actually talk to them.

2. “We have all the information and data you need about our users.”

That sounds really great! And we absolutely want to see all the information and data you have about your users because it will help us get started on understanding them! But there are pretty specific things we want to know about your users—not just their demographics, their browsers, and their clickstreams. We want to know how they behave, what motivates them, what their endgoals are, what they understand and don’t understand. We want to get inside their minds!

3. “We know our users better than our users know themselves.”

No you don’t! It’s easy to fall prey to that thinking because it’s very obvious when users’ actualbehaviors differ from how they say they behave—which happens often. You can see what they’re doing but you don’t know what they’re thinking.

4. “Yikes. That sounds expensive.”

Research can be expensive—but it doesn’t have to be. A small amount of the right kind of research can go a long way and can help you build the right thing the first time.

5. “Can’t we design and then do research?”

We should always continue to do research after we design, yes! But we should start with research first. Research, design, research, design, research, design. It’s an iterative cycle in which we continuously build on what we know and identify what we don’t know.

6. “Research seems to take a lot of time.”

It doesn’t have to! If you get research on board early, we can make plans that fit into your sprint cycles and your release dates. And—here’s the kicker—designing without research and requirements is a whole lot harder for the designer than it looks, and often ends up taking even more time (and more iterations, and more money) than if research had been on board from the get-go.

Here’s the thing: Clients don’t really think they have all the information and data we need; they don’t really think we don’t need research.

They’re the kids on Christmas [holiday] morning who want to skip a hearty breakfast and open their presents right now even though the hearty breakfast will give them all the energy they need to play with all their presents and not share with their little sisters all day long.

Clients just want to get to design. They want to see drawings and sketches and wireframes WAY more than they want to see reports and data and qualitative content analysis. I don’t blame them. I’d rather look at pretty, interactive pictures too (especially if they’re in infographics full of neat info)! It’s easier to feel like progress is being made with design than with research. (Consider the design statement “Your users will click this button and buy your product! Done!” vs. the research statement “A statistically significant sample of your target audience considers your site more informational than transactional and therefore are not likely to expect to purchase products directly from here.” Pretty compelling, and a less easy fix if you’re looking at the research.)

What Will We Learn?

So yes, design is cooler and it gets to the Christmas presents first. But…breakfast is the most important meal of the day, am I right?

And what, you may wonder, does this breakfast (research) tell you? Well, all kinds of stuff! It can tell us who your users are. It can tell us what your users want. It can tell us not only whether this slick new interface we designed is intuitive and functional, BUT ALSO whether your users are likely to use it at all. Because what are you gonna do with a beautiful, intuitive, modern app that no one’s gonna use because no one cares about its basic functionality?

Enterprise software benefits incredibly from user research. Enterprise clients by default have complex apps that reach all kinds of users with all kinds of roles in all kinds of fields and all kinds of tech savviness and experience. These complex apps have time- and error-critical tasks that occur in sequence and are dependent on other tasks being completed first, and correctly. Research for enterprise clients is the rocket science of the user experience field.

Ironically, some enterprise clients still play the we-don’t-need-research-please-don’t-make-us game. They tend to have a lot of data on their users that they can give us: market research, analytics, support portals…They often have a dedicated UX team or Product Management team that can give us all the answers. AND. They are usually so behind the curve with their legacy systems that the moment they decided they needed a redesign, they also decided they needed it yesterday.

All these things come together to create a perfect storm of a client resistant to research. Yes, they’ve hired a UX design consultancy to do UX design work. But the design can’t happen without the user experience part, and user experience is understood through research.

How Will We Do It?

So what kinds of research are we talking about here? All kinds! We do everything from contextual inquiries to surveys to data analysis to user testing. We do independent competitive analyses and face-to-face customer interviews. We talk to stakeholders, users, and former customers. We create personas and scenarios; we gather requirements for epics and user stories. Research is everywhere! (Or, at least, it should be.)

Here’s a great visual overview from a Nielsen Norman Group article by Intel VP and Chief Design Officer Christian Rohrer about when and how we might want to use different research methods.

I can see how this list of researchables can appear a little daunting at the outset. But it’s not. Not really. Because we don’t insist on all of this research; we just want some of it. Even just a little bit will help our designers so much.

So how do we decide what kinds of research to recommend for what clients? What research is optional? What research is imperative? How do we avoid scaring off clients who think research is akin to our expendable little toe (it makes us look “normal,” but do we really need it for balance?)?

Well, of course, we use our expertise and experience and collaboration to make those decisions and recommendations. And our expertise and experience are nothing to sneeze at, mind you. They’ve gotten us this far, and they’ll continue to launch us forward.

But Expero has also been working on a technique that will hopefully turn art into science. We’ve taken our expertise and experience (and a lot of research) and used it to create a tool that, through a series of questions about users and task flows and product type, will help us figure out the right amount of research we’ll need to conduct in order to provide a successful, thoughtful, user experience design. More on that to come!

In the meantime, don’t forget to eat your Christmas morning breakfast.

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