Research Is Communication

By Demetrius Madrigal and Bryan McClain

Published: January 4, 2010

“As user researchers, we’ve come to realize the average consumer doesn’t expect companies to involve their users in developing their products and services. … If some of the people creating software don’t understand our role, it’s not surprising consumers don’t.”

In our column, Insights from Research, we’ll explore user research and the communication that drives it. We’ll talk about the need for innovating research methodologies, as well as the need to learn to listen and communicate effectively. We’ll describe some of the challenging situations that can arise while performing research and ways to resolve them. For example, we often get questions about how to handle participants who won’t open up and talk about their experience—or the complete opposite, participants who talk a great deal, but stray off topic. Finally, we’ll discuss ways to use communication to better connect with customers and gain an understanding of their experience. Through it all, we’ll draw upon examples from our experience performing research in a variety of different domains and with different types of people. We hope you’ll all join us in this discussion about user research, whose purpose is understanding users and their user experience.

When people ask us what we do for a living, it can be difficult to explain if they aren’t familiar with the user-centered design process. As user researchers, we’ve come to realize the average consumer doesn’t expect companies to involve their users in developing their products and services. Most people envision engineers having an idea, building a product, then sending it to market. So, describing our role in a process the average consumer doesn’t understand has been a challenge.

“To have any hope of satisfying customers’ needs, a company needs to have a deep understanding of their customers and their needs. Through user research, a company can reach out to their customers and gain that understanding.”

In actuality, the reason so many small software businesses fail so quickly is because they don’t understand that their knowledge of how to build a product is not sufficient to build success. The true vision of a multidisciplinary team of engineers, designers, product people, marketers, business people, and researchers is foreign to them. If some of the people creating software don’t understand our role, it’s not surprising consumers don’t. Over time, we’ve learned to liken the user research process to communication between a company and its customers. To have any hope of satisfying customers’ needs, a company needs to have a deep understanding of their customers and their needs. Through user research, a company can reach out to their customers and gain that understanding.

Consumers have two ways in which they can communicate with companies: through their purchasing behavior and through user research. Purchasing behavior is the most important and most definitive of the two. If a company can develop a product that is easy to use and provides value to consumers, consumers tend to demonstrate their approval by purchasing that product. On the other hand, if a product fails to tap into the needs of customers or has a user interface that is difficult to use, sales are likely to be disappointing. For example, over the past few years, American consumers have sent strong messages to American automotive manufacturers through their purchasing behavior, by largely avoiding large trucks and SUVs. Instead, they’ve opted to purchase smaller, more reliable, and more fuel-efficient cars. Detroit’s big three were slow to respond to this message and survived only with the aid of massive government assistance.

When Apple introduced the Newton Message Pad in 1993, the device had difficulty finding a place in the market. Shortly afterward, Palm introduced a line of PDAs (personal digital assistants) that enjoyed huge success, making the brand Palm Pilot synonymous with the term PDA. Palm was able to succeed where Apple had floundered—thanks to their ability to tap into and understand what consumers wanted. Apple was eventually able to learn from their foray into PDA territory and introduce their revolutionary iPhone, but the lessons that brought them to that point were rather costly.

“A product’s ability to meet the needs of consumers and fit into their lives is key to its success.”

Palm, on the other hand, introduced the Palm Pilot without a similarly costly learning process. They were able to accomplish this through user research, as Dev Patnaik and Robert Becker documented in their classic article “Needfinding: The Why and How of Uncovering People’s Needs.” Toyota learned similar lessons through user research. When developing a new vehicle to appeal to an aging Baby Boomer market segment, they turned to IDEO to guide the design process. IDEO engaged in a program of design research that established the needs of the demographic, letting Toyota develop a vehicle that adapted to the lives of adults who no longer need to drive their children from place to place. A product’s ability to meet the needs of consumers and fit into their lives is key to its success.

If a decision to purchase is the final word in a conversation between a company and consumers, user research makes the first impression. Just as communication is an interaction between people, user research is an interaction between a company and its market. It lets a company get to know the people who are its potential customers before making a decision about establishing a relationship with them. Just like in relationships between people, it’s important to assess compatibility before making a commitment. Similarly, it’s very common for consumers to do their own product research before committing to a purchase. They may accomplish this by reading product descriptions, specifications, and reviews and talking to their friends and neighbors who might have prior experience with a product or brand.

“While observing behavior can tell you a great deal about what people do, it’s only through talking them that you can learn why they do it. The why behind behavior indicates what drives it.”

As a form of communication, user research is subject to many of the same rules as interpersonal communication. This is the reason we’ve studied communication to inform our research methods. Good communication helps ensure good data. And good data helps ensure a successful product.

Throughout a user research process, a researcher is a company’s representative and participants represent the market. As the two engage in a conversation about a collection of features that might eventually coalesce into a single product, their ability to understand one another is vital to ensuring the product meets the needs of its intended users. Though there are various ways in which a user researcher can objectively measure behavior, the best way to get a complete understanding of people’s experience with a product is through communication. While observing behavior can tell you a great deal about what people do, it’s only through talking them that you can learn why they do it. The why behind behavior indicates what drives it.

“Concern for customers is essential, and the communication a user researcher has with customers reflects that.”

It’s important for a user researcher to be a good representative for the company. As the company’s representative, the researcher represents the brand. Participants’ first impressions of the company depend on the researcher. He should always demonstrate a real concern for the well-being of the company’s customers. Only through this deep and legitimate concern for customers can the researcher develop the kind of understanding of customer needs that can inform the design of a product or service and ensure it fits into people’s lives. It is also the only way to convince participants that the company cares about their input and really intends to use it to guide design—so expressing their experience is worthwhile. If a researcher fails to establish this trust, participants might not feel comfortable opening up about their experience.

For example, we’ve seen someone absolutely scowl as soon as she picked up a product and started looking it over, our immediate assumption was that she hated it. When we inquired, we learned that she actually liked the product, but she’d just had an argument with her sister before coming to the research session. Armed with this knowledge, we could pause the session for a few minutes, talking with her to get her mind off her sister. Then, when we brought her focus back to the product, we witnessed an entirely different display of emotion. If we had not taken the time to talk with the participant before diving into the study, she might not have felt comfortable revealing her argument with her sister. She might have responded, Oh, it’s nothing, the product is fine, and left it at that.

“Deeply understanding their customers is what allows successful companies to think five years ahead of the market and develop products and services that revolutionize the way we live our lives.”

Concern for customers is essential, and the communication a user researcher has with customers reflects that—for example, in a desire to know why a customer has a hard time sleeping at night or just can’t find the time to get to the gym, in curiosity about why a frown just crept across a person’s face or why he cracked a smile, or in thoughtful questions about a person’s life.

Deeply understanding their customers is what allows successful companies to think five years ahead of the market and develop products and services that revolutionize the way we live our lives. Rather than just responding to what’s already on the market with derivative knockoffs and copies of what was at one time disruptive technology, companies that listen to their customers can truly innovate, without shooting in the dark like so many startups that just take a chance on an idea. By understanding the market and the needs of their customers, these companies can develop products customers want and put themselves in the best position to achieve success.


As much as I agree that doing research is good, I think you have argued through confirmation bias as researchers rather than as observers of businesses.

The reason why many small companies fail is because that is what most companies do. For every 1 that succeeds, 10 fail, and that is regardless of how much time they spend researching their market.

Yes, there needs to be a market, but that is not something that you can only find out by doing more research. Case in point: Twitter—starting as an SMS service for friends and family—and Facebook—starting as a College Network.

I could give you a long list of well -esearched products that tanked. Windows Vista comes to mind; some of the Palm models; NGadget from Nokia.

There is a big difference between being a large established player, having a lot of money to spend on research in a well-understood field and being a small startup dealing with disruptive technology.

So big, in fact, that large companies, most of the time, completely miss the real disruptive technologies and products—and that is, may I add, despite them doing the research and knowing their customers. The problem has been well illustrated and documented by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma.

The truth about this is that there is no recipe for success. That we should stop selling certainty where none really exists. Small players become big players and get disrupted by other small players.

Yes, it’s better to do research than not doing it. But it has nothing to do with knowing customers, rather it has to do with understanding technology.

Customers generally don’t know what they want, so you can’t trust them. You might be asking late adopters that will adopt only once early adopters have jumped in. It’s too complicated to draw any conclusions on what to do to become a success.

You can, however, learn about people to become better improvisers and better deal with the uncertainty that is ever present—research or not.

I think it is important to understand that there is no single recipe for success. It is also important to recognize that research does not provide certainty, nothing does. At its heart, research is risk mitigation. When done properly, research can help to ensure that a product will not fail when it arrives in the market, but it isn’t perfect. There are many ways that conducting research can falter. Recruiting may not select the right people. The researchers may not get to a deeper level of user understanding. The research design and approach may not be ideal for understanding users. The researchers may not communicate their findings to the rest of the development team in an accurate way. The research team and their findings may be marginalized by designers and stakeholders who don’t believe in them. Products like Windows Vista contain fairly obvious usability issues—for example, incessant security pop-ups—that should have been uncovered during research. However, it is not unusual for designers and stakeholders to choose not to act on research findings for any number of reasons.

There’s always a reason why companies fail. A lack of research is not the only reason, but a lack of consumer understanding is certainly a major reason. Focusing on understanding technology will never answer the question Will someone pay for it?

Good discovery research does not rely on customers knowing what they want; rather it should uncover what customers need. This is the reason why research must advance beyond focus groups and in-depth interviews to include objective research such as ethnography.

Research does not provide certainty, but when it is properly applied and stakeholders are willing to attend to the research findings, risk will be dramatically reduced. When combined with quality design, engineering, marketing, advertising, distribution, and sales, it becomes the closest thing possible to certainty.

Focusing on understanding technology will never answer the question Will someone pay for it?

It’s not intended to answer that question, but to predict where disruption is going to be, so you can be there and optimize your chances of being a success.

There are no guarantees. You can do all the right things, the research, the business model, easy to understand service, have customers say that they will pay for it, and yet, you lose it all to some punk. The world of business is filled with examples of this.

The problem I have with your argument is the same problem I have with the field of UCD in general.

The claim seems to be that, by conducting the proper research and understanding your users deeply—I take that as being covering the right bases and asking the right questions—you are better off than if you don’t.

But when someone then points out that plenty of well-researched projects have failed and plenty of non-researched projects haven’t, the gut reaction from the community is to then say that the research wasn’t conducted properly or the process was wrong.

But then all you are saying is that it’s down to the individual—which I would whole heartedly agree with, but which then also leads to the conclusion that what matters is the individual, not the process.

But then you could say, Yes, but if we have talented researchers with the proper process, their results would be better than if you have talented designers without a research process.

But there is no evidence for this. Absolutely none.

Yes, if you are dealing with well-understood markets, it’s important to conduct research in order to improve your position and understanding. Here you can look at current customers and how to improve their lives via product improvement and optimization.

But when dealing with small software companies, who almost by definition deal with disruptive innovation in order to have a chance in the market at all—those that you refer to in your essay—then the reality is quite different.

In that space, in order to survive you have to be able to change your offering and focus. Doing research is not going to work, since there is nothing to base this reasearch on. It’s guess work, nothing else, and there is nothing that proves that the guessing is better just because it’s based on research.

It’s much more complicated than you seem to suggest, and I think you are making the mistake of comparing large companies in well-understood markets with small disruptive companies in non-developed markets.

Some thoughts:

  • Speaking about and understanding people’s needs and context is useful—including the business, engineers, designers, customers.
  • Understand why you are asking the research questions you ask.
  • Understand what you plan to do with the results and how they will translate to or impact design improvements and innovation opportunities.
  • Understand how the user research can pair up with other design and technology initiatives.
  • Be smart in your approach to get the best value from your research budget.

Regards, Dan

To Hello World—It seems as though we have a fundamental difference in opinion.

I understand and have conceded that there is no perfect recipe for guaranteed success. I also understand that small companies and startups can come along and create disruptive technology.

I do have an issue with your use of the description “well-researched,” because we, as outsiders, don’t really know what research was done on each of these projects or how well it was performed. One of my fundamental beliefs is that not all research is equivalent. That is one of the reasons this column exists—to improve the quality of user research throughout the software industry. And we wouldn’t be writing this column if we didn’t think user research would benefit from improvement.

From my point of view, any funded startup has some kind of research to back it up. No venture capitalist would fund a company without market research to support their business concept. Thus, I can’t think of any successful, modern companies that I could say, with certainty, had no research involved in their development.Also, I wouldn’t describe a technology as disruptive unless it has disrupted a market. For example, motion detection has existed for decades and had reached the market in limited ways before Nintendo disrupted the market with Wii and motion controls, which Sony’s Sixaxis and Microsoft’s Project Natal are now copying. Similarly, 3D-film technology has existed since the 1890s, but James Cameron has only recently disrupted the market with his latest film, Avatar. I saw tons of incredible technologies while working at NASA, but none that were ready for the general, commercial market. I fundamentally believe there is more to creating disruptive technology than developing new and interesting technology, although that is obviously incredibly important.

There are plenty of examples of companies doing research and failing, and there are many examples of companies doing research and succeeding. There is also an overwhelming number of projects that didn’t do research and failed, which is one fact I feel is being neglected. The assumption of this column is that user research helps us to understand users and the consumer market. Doing research helps to stimulate designers’ ideas and improves the chances of success. If you do not feel the same way, this might not be the column for you.

Well, I have quite a lot of experience in designing for startups, because I have been doing this for a while now. I have helped and designed for perhaps more than 50 startups, and I can tell from personal experience that there is no pattern.

I can’t help but feel that you avoiding the real issue though, and that is the one thing you don’t mention in your last response. Companies who don’t do any research and succeed. Which is exactly why I reacted.

I am not against research at all. I am simply against the claim that proper research gives you better results and would help small software companies avoid failing.

There is simply nothing to back that claim up. My personal experience with small startups, which after all is quite considerable, doesn’t show any connection between the two.

In other words, I am all for research. What I am against is your claim that it improves the chances of success. I don’t understand how you can claim this without any evidence. That seems counter to the very discipline you come from.

I guess this can show you some proof, Hello World: “Outliers and Luck in User Performance.”

Simply put, I wouldn’t put my money in outliers’ hands.

Also, I have a different notion about disruptive technology: television, trains, computers, cars. None of them were made without research. (Thomas Edison just didn’t say “Fiat phonograph.”) None of them were improved without research.

When you do research, you are building solid blocks of information to back up your decisions and move your product ahead.

Think about the TV. Even with research, how many years it took to be part of people’s lives?

Without research, your true numbers will show up in 20 years.

For the article: I really like your emphasis on communication as part of research’s core features. The interdisciplinary approach opens the mind to a greater range of information options, which will impact the way you do research.

I love this article: “Science to Watch People By.”

I will copy here an interesting part: “Science is difficult and the collection of data can be boring even at the best of times, but my impression is that the way in which science is taught becomes increasingly mechanistic and loses sight of the big questions. There is still a sense that you must read novels to find how the world really is and how people tick.”

Communication is indeed used to know the customers’ preferences, specifications, and others. It is common for business establishments to conduct surveys or encourage their customers to provide feedback to provide better services.

Business Communication

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