Why every project should include user research

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read time: 8 minspublished 15 July, 2022

User experience, user-centred design, UX design… the digital sphere has seen an exponential growth in these buzzwords flying around, and for good reason. Every single product, service, invention, creation, artwork, or design is about people. What people need.  What people want. How to make people’s lives better, more productive, more interesting. more connected, more fun… it’s all about people. 

In this opinion piece, I’ll be looking at what user research involves (a lot more than you might think), what skills are required to get the job done right, what kind of time and effort (and therefore cost) might go into doing it, and why you - yes, you - need to seriously consider if you can afford NOT to do it.

First, let’s have a quick overview of what user experience is and how user research fits into the equation. 

What is user experience design?

The exact definition of what constitutes user experience can vary depending on who you talk to. That’s possibly one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the movement. A lack of absolute clarity and clear guidance. I’ve lost track of the endless debates and social media posts proclaiming to have a new insight into what UX (user experience) is and how it’s different from UI (user interface). I’m not going to get into that here. 

This is my definition of what user experience design means:

A process that takes the user’s needs, wants, interests, emotions (or psychological state), abilities, deficits, and context into account.

Don’t worry if that sounded a bit overwhelming, I’m going to be breaking that down for you. 

Put simply, UX takes a people-first approach. That’s why it’s also called user-centred design. Instead of thinking about what would look cool, or about what you as a business would like to create - you put your user front and centre.

How do you do that? The first step (among many) is user research.

User Research - what is it?

You might have an idea in your head that user research is just a fancy new term for some good old fashioned market research. You go out, you speak to some people who fit the demographic of your target audience, and you gather feedback and insights from them. 

Nothing exactly earth-shattering there. 

Except, the thing about user research is that it’s only as good as the plan you create to carry it out (and arguably, the person doing the research). 

For me, that means taking a heavily psychological research approach, which can involve the following steps:

  1. Define your research question: this includes the precise aims and objectives you want to achieve by conducting this research.

  2. Identify the people (users) who are most relevant to your research question: this will need to take into account context, such as the product, business sector, etc.

  3. Ethics and consent: always need to consider how your research may affect the people you’re talking to, especially if it’s a sensitive topic, and you always need a clear plan for getting informed consent. 

  4. Choose your methodological approach: do you want to do interviews, focus groups, put out a questionnaire?

  5. Decide how, when, and where you will carry out this research: in people’s homes, out on the street Gorilla-style, in a lab, on-line, in person, etc.

  6. Think about what data you might get and how you’ll analyse it: qualitative or quantitative data? Thematic or discourse analysis vs statistical analysis.

  7. Stakeholder, resource, and communication strategy: who needs to be in the know, who needs to be involved, how and when you’ll talk to these people.

  8. Finally, timescales: give yourself an approximate time frame to complete each step and have an overall deadline in place (it doesn’t matter if this moves, just that it’s there to focus everyone involved).

As you can see, this is a bit more thorough than just going and grabbing a bunch of people and asking them questions. It’s also about more than just capturing people’s age, what products they use, what they like, what they dislike. It’s about getting into the guts of their experience. It’s about understanding them at an individual level and then translating that into broader, generalised themes, traits, wants, and needs. 

Specialist roles - aka different strokes for different folks 

There’s this huge misconception out there that a UX designer can and should also be a user researcher. Or vice versa.

The truth of it is that asking a designer to turn into a full-on researcher would be like asking an astronaut to paint a Picasso. OK, you might get lucky and stumble across a unicorn, but the chances are, they’ll be great at one and suck at the other. 

A designer will be skilled at … design. Graphic design, web design, interactive design, motion design, video editing, animation. 

A user researcher will be a skilled… researcher! Obviously. 

Probably from a psychology or sociology background, because you need that awareness and training in understanding and studying human behaviour. You need people with the specific research skills required to carry out human research and also do the required data analysis that turns all that lovely data into meaningful information that you and the rest of the team can use. 

User research outputs can include rich qualitative data in the form of specific comments and feedback from your users, or quantitative data in the form of a stack of insightful stats showing user characteristics, opinions, issues, and needs. 

All of which can help you prioritise what to design for. 

Why you need to do user research

But perhaps the real value comes from the unexpected.

User research can show you pain points you didn’t even know existed. Pain points that can be exploited by great design aimed at resolving those bottlenecks or problems. Putting your product or service above the rest. 

User research can inform you about what your customers or users enjoy about your product or service, so you don’t reinvent the wheel while you’re designing. This can help ensure you keep the features or functionality that people love and want. Nothing annoys a user faster than having something they liked taken away from them. 

User research might even tell you who your real users are. Let’s face it, we’re all a bit guilty (or a lot guilty) of holding an image of our “ideal” customer in mind. The ones we aspire to. The ones we wish we had. But the reality might be that a whole other type of customer uses our product or service. Knowing that is crucial. Having that knowledge means your business can pivot and adapt to suit its actual users or customers. And you know what that means, right? More usable products and services - more profit and success. 

So, yeh. User research. It’s way more than just market research. It’s about getting down to the nitty gritty, uncovering the uniqueness of your customer base, and getting valuable insights that can help you tap into their desires - and ultimately lead to a superior user experience. 

I hear you asking: how do we transform all this user data into design? Well, that’s what we’ll be getting into in the next instalment of this UX series. Don’t want to miss it? Follow us on social media (facebook, twitter, linkedIn) to stay in the know! 

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