When we explain our UX design process to prospective clients, one question comes up more often than others: “Can we spend less time on user research?”
In some ways, the request is understandable.
Our entire process is based on comprehensive research with end-users. We prefer to use in-person techniques like ethnographic field study and user interviews to establish a thorough understanding of our audience.
(To learn more about our process, download our Essential Guide to Building Applications People Love.)
Well-meaning clients look at our research processes and think that’s the area that can be expedited -- or skipped altogether.
They’re eager to get started on the designs so they can feel tangible progress. Quite likely they’ve been waiting past the point of patience to address UX challenges in their product or website. It’s costing them money, after all!
Having said that, we advise clients who are skeptical about user research to take a step back and consider the risks of not including user research in their design process.
Without user research, it’s impossible to validate whether your product will be accepted by your target audience. Consensus among stakeholders does not mean consensus among users, and relying solely on intuition is a huge gamble.
When Incomplete User Research Killed Google Glass
Google Glass is one of the best examples of this same type of gamble going wrong.
All initial signs pointed towards the product being revolutionary. Time magazine named it one of the best inventions of 2012. Interest reached a fever pitch among tech enthusiasts and journalists.
But the truth was the version of Glass Google was selling to the world was a prototype that hadn’t been thoroughly tested with real users. Once journalists got their hands on the coveted eyewear, they began to notice deep flaws in the product.
The battery life was fleeting. A host of bugs plagued the software. Users were spooked by Glass’s always-on recording feature.
In the end, Google shut down the project only a few years after its inception. The root cause was a lack of user research.
If the company had patiently tested the product with a cohort of users, rather than releasing a prototype to the public, they would have uncovered Glass’s fatal flaws before they brought the entire project down.
How User Research Helped Slack Make History
As we’ve just seen, a lack of user research can fall even the largest of product giants.
(Again, that’s why we always advise our clients to invest in the research part of the design process.)
In contrast, investing in a rigorous research process can yield extraordinary returns. Slack, one of the most successful software companies in history, built its communications empire on a foundation of user research.
Before Slack first launched -- before it became the fastest-growing SaaS company ever -- the team had to plead with colleagues at other companies to use the software and give them feedback.
The internal team was already using the product themselves, but they knew they needed more input. They needed to do more user research.
Once they got a few of their friends using it, they noticed how the product functioned once it spread across an entire organization.
Straight away, the Slack team noticed that at larger organizations, people were created with lots of different channels, which created a lot of confusion across the organization. Seeing this, Slack quickly introduced channel descriptions as well as a per-channel user count.
These small changes made the product exponentially more usable for larger teams.
The Slack team continued this pattern of user research, followed by a round of iteration, followed by more research, and so on.
This commitment to user research paid dividends. If you haven’t heard, Slack is now the fastest-growing SaaS company in history.
Today, their research process is no less strenuous. Slack tests new features within its employees first (who are all users) before conducting more research with external groups.
The UX team at Slack also blends traditional research methods like field studies with more modern techniques, like fielding product support calls for a couple of weeks.
In the end, there can be no doubt that Slack’s historic growth numbers have been fueled in large part by continuous user research.
Types of User Research Methods
At its core, user research sparks innovation, validates design decisions, and mitigates the risk for a business when it launches or redesigns a product.
To put research into practice, UX professionals have a vast amount of techniques at their disposal. This graph from the Neilsen Norman Group illustrates the large number of research methods UX designers may utilize on any given project:
There are numerous ways to categorize user research -- like qualitative versus quantitative -- but as I’ve learned more about this domain, I’ve found it’s easiest to group user research techniques based on their purpose rather than on their technical characteristics.
Let’s categorize research techniques into two broad categories: user research and usability testing.
With the vast array of research methods classified (however broadly) let’s take a closer look at some of the techniques we use most often at DePalma:
User research techniques uncover the challenges users face when they attempt to complete their work or perform a certain task. These practices help designers build empathy with their audience and design solutions that precisely address the challenges end-users face.
Ethnographic Field Study
Ethnography is the study of people in their environment through observation and occasionally face-to-face interviews.
In UX design, field studies are one of the most valuable sources of information. Watching people use a software application allows researchers to uncover needs and challenges that end-users might not think to mention in interviews.
As the Kelley brothers say, “...there is nothing like observing the people you’re creating for to spark new insights. We’ve found that figuring out what people need is what leads to the most significant innovations.
Interviewing end-users, either in a focus group or in a one-on-one setting, can reveal how people think and feel about an application. This qualitative data can guide designers to where an application’s design falls short and highlight the aspects people enjoy.
Although stakeholders are not technically users, they can still provide a great deal of context about the groups of people who use their application. Stakeholders may also have useful information about the business goals any proposed solution needs to fulfill to be viable.
Where interviews focus on in-depth answers from individuals, surveys look for patterns within a group. By collecting self-reported data from end-users, surveys help designers identify the overarching challenges that need to be solved.
Mental models are a collection of beliefs that users have about the design of an application or website, i.e., what its functions are, and how it should look.
By creating a mental model of what most users think about an application and comparing it to the facts about how the software looks and functions, designers can unearth unmet needs that should be addressed in the UX design.
Personas are archetypes that represent different types of users for any one application. Designers create personas to centralize demographic data, enumerate common challenges, and help maintain a general empathy toward the end-user.
As I mentioned, this list does not cover every single user search technique ever used throughout time.
But it does give you a good idea of how UX designers establish a real, empathetic understanding with their audience. And how they use that knowledge to build a design that meets the needs of end-users.
Where the previous set of practices uncovers the user’s needs, usability testing (which is technically a subset of user research) analyzes how people interact with an existing interface. We also use these techniques to get feedback on the prototypes we are designing for a client to affirm we are moving in the right direction and addressing the real needs of the user.
Diary studies encourage users to journal their daily experiences with a piece of software. The qualitative feedback users record in their diaries enables designers to understand the audience’s emotional disposition toward an application more efficiently.
Throughout the UX design process, several different variations of prototypes may appear -- the simplest of which could be a sketch on paper.
A clickable prototype is developed for usability testing to represent a codeless version of a given workflow. Interactive prototypes can be clickable wireframes or high-fidelity experiences to make them feel closer to the real thing.
We typically recommend lower-fidelity prototypes for user testing. Users and stakeholders navigate the prototype and provide feedback on the new experience.
Remote UX Testing
Where field studies observe users in person, remote UX testing uses clickstream or heat mapping technology to record how people navigate a design without the presence of a designer. The outcomes reveal where people are getting stuck in the design and highlight opportunities for improvement.
While the two types of user research serve different purposes, they don’t always happen in a particular order. UX design is a fluid process, and there’s often overlap between research and design techniques.
In Practice: How User Research Earned Us a Standing Ovation
Not so long ago, a marine transportation company hired us to help them build a custom fleet management application so they could track the movements and freight loads of their fleet of barges.
The client’s IT team had already attempted to design an application to meet these needs, but it was soundly rejected by one particularly hard-to-please user group, the barge captains.
Even though this audience presented a unique challenge, our UX team knew that with the right user research, we could uncover exactly how to create a design they would love.
To understand the challenges these people faced, we conducted field studies in Nashville, Paducah, and New Orleans. We observed how every member of the team worked, and we built a plan for redesigning the UX accordingly.
First, we presented an optimized workflow, followed by a series of corresponding wireframes:
After we finished presenting the wireframes, something unexpected happened. The barge captains -- yes, the very group that rejected the first application -- stood up and started applauding.
Their appreciation was a direct reflection of the belief they had in the proposed design to solve their challenges at work. And it was all possible thanks to comprehensive user research.
I mentioned at the beginning of this article that we take an in-depth approach to research in our design process. I hope I’ve illustrated just how important user research is to effective UX design.
It could mean the difference between being the unmitigated success of Slack and the catastrophe of Google Glass.
Of course, we keep our requirements flexible, so we can meet the needs of a variety of clients. However, we ardently believe that the best UX designs are informed by effective user research.
Without it, you’re only designing for your assumptions, not for what your audience needs.