Excuses, Excuses! Why Companies Don’t Conduct User Research
Published: March 7, 2016
Doing user research is like eating healthy food, exercising, and getting an annual checkup. Almost everyone recognizes that it’s good to do these things, but many people fail to do them. Similarly, many companies neglect to do user research. Why? In this column, I’ll discuss the most common excuses I hear from companies and project teams that don’t conduct user research—and I’ll provide solutions to overcome them.
What Is User Research?
There are still many people—and entire companies—who create software, Web sites, and digital products, but are unaware of user research. While the term user experience has received a lot of attention over the last few years, many people still don’t know user research is the key activity that informs UX design. So, obviously, the first barrier to the adoption of user research is a lack of knowledge.
To fill this knowledge gap, you can do the following:
- Educate people and evangelize the importance of user research as the key input to designing good user experiences.
- Point to examples of companies that do and don’t conduct user research and the resulting positive and negative outcomes.
- Conduct a small study to demonstrate what user research is and the value that it provides. For example, take a question that the company or project team has about users and conduct a small study to get the answer to that question. Seeing a specific, relevant example of user research is more powerful than just talking about it—and the findings are more interesting to people.
We Already Know Our Users
While most people agree with the common-sense philosophy that we should know about the people for whom we design products, many think they already know about users and their needs. Companies may do market research, have user groups or panels, and conduct surveys and focus groups, and their sales and support teams may hear about problems and receive requests directly from customers.
It’s true that many people within an organization do have important knowledge about users. These people are a great source from whom to obtain initial information when you’re planning user research. But their knowledge is not usually sufficiently detailed and is not informed by direct observation of users performing their usual tasks. Plus, they don’t usually provide the type of information you need to make design decisions.
To overcome the preconception that a company already knows enough about users:
- Don’t dismiss the knowledge that stakeholders already have about users. Interview stakeholders, individually or in a group, demonstrating that you value the information they can provide.
- Emphasize that, although the company does have some knowledge of users, you need to deeply understand that information through firsthand observation of people performing their usual tasks in their natural environment.
- Ask stakeholders to provide the questions about users to which they’ve always wanted answers. Although they may think they already know their users well, some unanswered questions must have arisen over time. Reminding stakeholders that they do have questions of their own and emphasizing that user research could help answer those questions is a great way to get them interested in conducting user research.
- Instead of stating a vague goal like learning about users, emphasize that user research can answer specific, important business questions such as, Why do people cancel their membership? and Why don’t people sign up at this step?”
But We Do Conduct User Research
Unfortunately, stakeholders often mistake user research for its older, more famous cousin, market research. It’s easy to see why a layman would make this mistake. Both market research and user research focus on learning about customers, and they use similar methods: interviews, focus groups, surveys, and creating profiles of customer groups. Of course, those of us in User Experience understand that user researchers and market researchers use these methods very differently, but the average business person doesn’t necessarily see that distinction.
To help your company distinguish between user research and market research, do the following:
- Show that you value and appreciate the information they already have. Use that information as a starting point in defining the users and planning user research.
- Explain the difference between market-research and user-research methods—especially the difference between focusing on what people say versus focusing on what people do—by observing users in their natural context. Explain some of the shortcomings of focus groups, surveys, and out-of-context interviews in gathering this type of information.
- Explain the type of information you need—such as users’ characteristics, tasks, tools, and environment. By showing that existing market research does not provide that information, you can make a better case for gathering it through user research.
We Have Subject-Matter Experts and User Representatives on Our Team
Some teams feel that including user representatives on projects adequately represents the voice of the user when defining requirements and reviewing designs. However, user representatives are not a good substitute for user research for the following reasons:
- Just in becoming part of a project team, they cease to be typical users. Instead, they become insiders who are too close to the project to be objective.
- Because user representatives are often volunteers who are power users and have a high level of interest in the application being designed, they don’t really represent the typical user.
- User representatives provide information about users’ needs and evaluate designs in the artificial environment of a conference room. It’s not possible for people to reliably provide details about their tasks, behaviors, and needs outside the context of performing those tasks. Therefore, they can’t provide very accurate design feedback.
To put the value of user representatives and subject-matter experts in the right perspective:
- Consider them to be stakeholders and interview them to get an initial understanding of the subject matter, the project, and the users.
- Explain the differences between the information that user representatives provide and that which you can learn from user research, which I outlined earlier.
We’re Going to Do Usability Testing
Usability testing is a very important and useful activity for finding and evaluating problems in a design solution. However, waiting to do user research until you have a design that people can use and evaluate during usability testing usually means you’ve waited to discover any information about the users until it is too late for the research to inform design. Until testing begins, design is based on assumptions and unproven information about users. The uncertainty of designing based on incorrect assumptions can lead to a lot of flailing around and excursions in the wrong direction, which can take a lot more time than you would have spent on doing initial user research. It’s much better to have solid information on which to base the design up front.
While usability testing provides specific information about the usability of the user interface you’re testing, it doesn’t give you much information about the users and their needs. You don’t learn as much in-depth information about users as you do when you visit people and observe them performing their tasks in their natural context.
Conducting user research at the beginning of a project provides crucial information about the users, their tasks, their tools, and their environment, enabling you to design an effective and satisfying user experience. Beginning the design process with a deep understanding of users lets you make much better design decisions. Then, later on, you can do usability testing to evaluate and refine the design.
To avoid doing usability testing when you should be doing user research:
- Educate your project team about the value of conducting user research and how it will save time and rework later in the project.
- Whenever appropriate, try to convince your team to allocate time for user research rather than just usability testing.
- If there’s no time for user-research tasks at the beginning of a project, try to conduct user research between projects, so you can gather helpful information about users that you can use across multiple projects.
We Don’t Need to Understand the Users
Unfortunately, it’s recently become fashionable among some UX designers to arrogantly reject the need to understand users. These people champion genius design, citing people like Steve Jobs, who supposedly didn’t listen to users. What they’ve misunderstood is that user research isn’t about simply listening to users and doing what they tell you to do. Innovations and great design aren’t the result of slavishly following users’ suggestions; they come from designing with a thorough understanding of users and their needs.
To overcome the misconception that user research is unnecessary:
- Recognize that people with this attitude may be hard to convince. If you think designers have the misconception that user research will tell them what to design, emphasize the fact that user research provides useful information about people and what they need, but it’s still up to the designer to create a design to meet their needs.
- If you still can’t convince a genius designer to do user research, try to convince the project team to conduct usability testing. Both the results of the testing and participants’ comments will reveal the lack of wisdom in designing without an understanding of users.
That Makes Sense, We Should Do That Some Time
Even when an organization knows about and believes in the value of user research, it’s difficult to change the development process to make it happen. But good intentions take you only so far. Change is difficult, especially in larger organizations. Sometimes it’s easier to go along with the inertia and keep the same process in place.
Of course, companies that don’t already conduct user research won’t have dedicated user researchers or assign anyone else to conduct user research. If no one takes responsibility for user research, it won’t happen. Often UX designers would like to conduct user research, but if they’re already extremely busy designing, they don’t have the time and energy to take on additional duties. Once teams plan projects without considering user research, it’s difficult to go back and fit research into the schedule once the project has started.
To encourage an organization to start doing user research now:
- Instead of waiting for the entire company to change its process, start small. By fitting in some small user-research studies whenever possible, you can begin showing the value that it provides.
- If you can’t fit user-research activities into your project schedule, conduct studies between projects. The information you gather can inform multiple projects.
- You don’t need to hire a dedicated user researcher at first. Make user research part of someone else’s responsibilities, and give that person the extra time and support they need to focus on research. Many UX designers already know something about user research and would like to take on those responsibilities.
User Research Doesn’t Seem Indispensable
Even when people believe in the value of user research, it may sometimes seem like it’s a step that a team could skip if time or money were tight. User research can seem like an ideal—a nice-to-have part of the design process. Since companies have created products for many years without doing user research, when push comes to shove, research is often the step that gets cut. Sure, projects that skipped user research may not have turned out so well, but they got done. In most companies, project teams are held accountable for completing projects successfully, on time, and on budget. Whether the final result is usable, useful, or enjoyable often doesn’t get measured. When companies reward their employees for operational results, adding user research to a project may seem more like a risk than a benefit.
To convince your organization that user research is essential, you need to accomplish the following:
- Ideally, the quality of a product’s or service’s user experience should be seen as the responsibility of everyone within an organization. Everyone needs to consider user experience just as important as completing projects on time and within budget. In reality, it can take a long time for a company to get to that point.
- Until then, try to ensure that, whenever you scope projects, you include user research as part of the development process. While that may sound obvious, if your organization doesn’t consider user research a standard part of the process, it will be extremely difficult to add it later in the development lifecycle.
The Value of User Research Seems Nebulous
User research sounds like a good idea to most people, but it’s hard to see tangible results from it. Unlike design and development, which produce tangible artifacts that people can see and use, the product of user research is information that either researchers present or team members must consume. Although this information is extremely valuable to UX designers, its value can seem somewhat nebulous to others—especially when there isn’t time to produce fancy deliverables to illustrate what researchers have learned.
Usability testing, in contrast, provides much more concrete and actionable recommendations. It validates design decisions, highlights specific problems, and hints at solutions. People who observe usability-testing sessions or view presentations of a study’s findings can immediately see the value that testing provides. But user-research findings are usually more general and don’t make the right design direction immediately obvious, which makes it harder for people to see the value of user research.
To demonstrate the value of user research:
- Include getting answers to specific, important business questions in your goals for user research. Ask stakeholders what they would like to learn. If you can provide insights into important issues, you’ll garner more interest in your research, and its findings will seem more valuable.
- Take the time to produce interesting, even compelling deliverables that people can quickly digest. Long reports and PowerPoint presentations can be boring and uninspiring.
- Show edited video and audio clips of user-research sessions. Seeing and hearing from users is far more interesting and impactful than reading reports or sitting through presentations.
- Bring key people along to observe the sessions—especially those who can approve or deny budgets for user-research studies. Seeing the research firsthand is much more convincing than listening to a researcher try to describe its value.
- Combine the knowledge you’ve gathered from multiple user-research projects to show that the information you’ve gained from each project is building your overall understanding of the users. You can apply this deeper understanding beyond specific projects.
- Measure the impact of user research by comparing the length of the design phase on projects that included user research and those that did not. For both types of projects, measure the number of problems you found during usability testing and the amount of redesign that resolving them required.
It Doesn’t Fit Our Development Process
People often have a hard time understanding how user research can fit into agile or Lean development processes. User research does take some time, so it’s understandable that people might wonder how it fits into rapid development processes.
To accommodate the needs of an agile development process:
- Conduct user research before the project begins or during a sprint zero, as part of requirements definition.
- Conduct user research as a separate, regular activity that occurs outside project schedules. You can then use the information you’ve gathered across multiple projects.
We Don’t Have Time or Money for User Research
If an organization considers user research an additional activity that they could add to a project schedule rather than an indispensable part of a project, people will perceive research as adding additional time and cost to the schedule. If decision makers are not convinced of the value of user research, they’ll see user research as an activity they can cut.
Instead of completely skipping user research, here are some things you can do to save time, yet still provide value through user research:
- Start with a small, informal study that shows the value of user research. If you overextend yourself—by trying to do a large, comprehensive study when you don’t have enough time, money, or participants—you’ll learn only general, superficial information. So, when you have only limited time, money, and participants, do a smaller, more targeted study that lets you get in-depth information about a particular topic. By showing the value of a smaller study, you can convince stakeholders to allocate more time to learn even more next time.
- Limit the number of participants by focusing only on the primary user group. Similar to the philosophy we follow in creating personas, by focusing your research on the needs of the primary user group, you can meet most of the needs of secondary user groups, too. Rather than spreading your limited time and effort across multiple user groups and getting just a little information about each of them, you can get more detailed information about the primary users.
- Narrow the scope of your research to achieve greater depth in a limited amount of time. Focus on the most important tasks and crucial questions. This is far better than stretching your limited time too thin and gathering only high-level, general, less useful information.
- Save time by shortening the analysis period and producing only high-level deliverables.
It’s Difficult to Get Access to Our Users
Even if a company wants to conduct user research, having difficulty in finding and recruiting participants can derail their efforts. Recruiting participants is a lengthy subject that I’ve written about numerous times. But here’s a summary of some common roadblocks:
- having only a vague definition of who the users are
- having an overly specific definition of who the users are, which makes them difficult to find
- not being allowed to contact users
- needing participants who many would consider too busy or too important to ask them to participate in research
- not knowing where to find the users or how to reach them
- needing participants who are geographically dispersed and would require a lot of time and travel expense to visit
To make it as easy as possible to get the right participants:
- Clearly define who the users are and how you’re going to find and screen them.
- If people are hesitant to allow you to contact users—perhaps someone in sales—you’ll need to persuade them of the value of conducting user research and reassure them about the efficacy of your methods and how you’ll contact these people.
- When people object that the users will be too busy or important to bother with user research, reassure them that most people are very happy to participate in research and actually feel flattered to have you consider their needs. Giving participants the opportunity to provide input that would improve a product whose use regularly inflicts suffering upon them is often a far more valuable incentive than money or a gift card. Even busy people such as executives and doctors are willing to participate in research. Of course, you may have to work harder to fit your research into their busy schedule, and they may have less time for you, but you can get them to participate with a little extra effort.
- If you can’t find participants using existing participant lists, you might have to employ more creative methods such as trying to find people in professional organizations or LinkedIn groups or by posting on social media.
- If visiting far-flung participants would require too much travel, you can limit travel by focusing your research on people in your local area. If you have coworkers in other locations, you could divide up the research between them, with each of your colleagues meeting with participants in their own location. You could also combine in-person research sessions with remote user research, using screen-sharing software to reach people where you can’t travel.
These Are Just a Few of the Excuses Companies Use
In this column, I’ve described just a few of the reasons people don’t conduct user research. I’m sure I haven’t covered them all. Feel free to share additional excuses you’ve heard or solutions that have worked for you in the comments.
Convincing people to make user research a standard activity at the beginning of every project is difficult. It takes time for organizations to change their development process. Education and evangelism are important, but they can go only so far. People need to see the specific value that user research provides. By starting small, you can demonstrate the value of user research and, eventually, establish user research as an essential part of any project.