10 User Research Myths and Misconceptions

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
November 9, 2015

It’s a fortunate time for the field of User Experience. Never before have so many people become aware of user experience and the importance of understanding users. Yet, there are still many misconceptions about how to gain an understanding of users and their needs. In this column, I’ll explain and dispel the most common myths and misconceptions about user research.

Myth 1: User Research Provides Stunning, New Revelations

Those who are new to user research often overestimate the impact of the information it reveals, assuming research will reveal amazing, hidden truths. In our effort to convince clients and project teams to include user research in a project’s activities, we sometimes oversell its benefits and raise their expectations to a point that reality cannot match.

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The Truth: User Research Provides Very Useful Information—and Perhaps a Few Amazing Insights

User research sometimes does reveal amazing, unexpected findings, but often, much of the information it reveals seems mundane—or just validates what we already know. However, because clients, stakeholders, and project team members usually do have some knowledge of users, it’s also easy for them to overestimate what they already knew or to view much of the information we uncover through research as common sense.

The purpose of user research is not to discover mind-blowing, sensational revelations that would delight the audience of a user-research presentation. The purpose of user research is to gain an understanding of the users, their tasks, the tools and technology they use, and the environment in which they perform their tasks. Although much of this information may seem mundane, a good understanding of the users is invaluable to designers when making design decisions—regardless of whether it amazes anyone else on the project team.

Myth 2: User Research Tells You How to Design Your Product

Similar to Myth 1, some people assume that user research will provide specific direction about how to design a product or that the findings will immediately reveal opportunities for important innovations.

The Truth: User Research Provides Information That Informs Design

While user research provides valuable information that informs design, it doesn’t immediately provide specific design solutions. Knowledge of the users and their needs helps designers to solve problems and meet users’ unmet needs. However, it can’t tell you what kind of navigation your site needs. User-research findings can lead to innovations, but design solutions don’t come directly out of user research. They require additional thought and evolve through iterative design cycles.

Myth 3: The Purpose of User Research Is to Gather General Information About Your Users

A common, beginner’s mistake is to conduct user research having only a vague, general goal of learning about the users. Since user research is unpredictable, and you don’t know exactly what you’ll find, this seems to make sense at first.

The Truth: You Need to Define Specific Research Goals

Research that you conduct with only vague, general goals produces vague, general findings. In theory, if you had unlimited time and participants, you could eventually gather all the information you need without defining any more specific goals than to learn about the users.

However, in the real world, with a limited number of participants and a finite amount of time with each participant, there’s only so much information you can uncover. That’s why it’s important to define exactly what you want to learn from your user research. Work with your client, stakeholders, and project team to determine what user groups to focus on, which tasks to observe, and the main questions you want to answer. Giving your research focus will lead to more actionable findings.

Myth 4: User Research Involves Asking Users What They Want

Some people equate user research with asking people what they want, asking them about their problems and what they think would solve them, or asking them to suggest new features. Confusing user research with traditional, software requirements gathering and market-research activities, they assume that user research involves gathering people’s opinions and feedback on new ideas, designs, and potential features.

The Truth: User Research Is About Inferring What Users Need

User research does enable us to gather user requirements, but we learn by carefully interviewing and observing people performing their tasks in their typical context. From this information, researchers infer user needs. They then evaluate the accuracy of their inferences during usability testing.

User research is not about asking people what they typically do, what they want, what would solve their problems, or what features they would want in the future. This would be futile for several reasons:

  • People can’t accurately describe their typical behavior. It’s much easier for them to show you what they do, by actually performing their tasks.
  • People have a hard time imagining how something could be improved. They know what frustrates them, and they can describe the problems they face, but it’s difficult for them to come up with solutions to their problems.
  • They also have a hard time giving opinions about possible, future features. People can’t accurately predict what they would do in a hypothetical situation or what they would or would not use in the future.

Instead, user research focuses on carefully observing people’s behavior and interviewing them to understand their current situation. By witnessing the problems that people face, we can see potential improvements. With our understanding of the users and their needs, we can design solutions. Then, by doing usability testing, we can evaluate the success of our solutions.

Myth 5: User Research Stifles Creativity

Those who think user research involves asking users what they want, often fear that user research might stifle design creativity and innovation. They equate user research with relying on the users to tell them what to create. They feel that design should lead rather than having users impose restraints on their creativity and that users should follow.

The Truth: User Research Provides Information That Is Useful in Creative Problem Solving

As I said earlier, user research doesn’t tell you what to design. It provides valuable information about the users, their context of use, and their needs. Designers are still in charge of making design decisions, which they base on that information. Consider the old proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” which defines as, “a need or problem encourages creative efforts to meet the need or solve the problem.” User research gives designers the information they require to understand users’ needs and problems. It doesn’t take away any of the creativity of designing solutions.

Myth 6: Don’t Listen to Users

Because people don’t readily know what they need and have a hard time envisioning the best solutions to their problems, some people have made the extreme pronouncement, “Don’t listen to users.” While this may be an attention-grabbing article title, it’s an oversimplification that some people have misinterpreted to mean, “Don’t conduct user research at all.”

For some, this becomes their slogan and provides justification for genius design, in which a designer comes up with innovations based on his or her personal vision rather than by listening to users. These people cite Steve Jobs and Henry Ford, and Ford’s disputed quotation, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Adopting this patronizing slogan is disrespectful to users and is terrible advice.

The Truth: Listening to Users Is a Key Part of User Research

Perhaps we should revise the sensationalistic statement “Don’t listen to users” to “Don’t just listen to users or uncritically do exactly what they say you should do.” Okay, that’s not nearly as catchy or sensational, but it’s much better advice.

Listening to users is a key part of user research. When you observe people performing their tasks, you’ll often want to get them to think aloud to explain what they are doing, and you’ll ask them probing questions to delve more deeply for information. When people talk about their problems and propose solutions, don’t simply dismiss their ideas. Instead, find out more about their problems and have them demonstrate them. Dig further into why they think their proposed solution would solve their problem. User research can lead to further insights, but it won’t lead to anything if you don’t listen to people in the first place.

So observe people performing their tasks, ask them the right questions, listen to them, and interpret their answers to infer what they need. Perhaps, according to that apocryphal quotation, Henry Ford should have spent time observing people driving wagons, or he should have asked them why they wanted faster horses.

Myth 7: User Research Is Expensive and Time Consuming

Like any other project activity, user research costs money and takes time. When it isn’t already an established part of projects, some people see user research as adding additional time and expense.

The Truth: The Cost of Not Understanding Users Is Far Greater

Yes, like any other project activity, user research does take time and costs money. While you can do research quickly and inexpensively, let’s not deny that doing effective research takes time and requires expense.

However, the real question should be: is that time and money well spent? While it’s easy to see the time and costs user research adds to a project, it’s harder to place a value on the consequences of designing without knowledge of the users. Creating something without knowing users and their needs is a huge risk that often leads to a poorly designed solution and, ultimately, results in far higher costs and sometimes negative consequences.

Myth 8: User Research Is Usability Testing

Usability testing is the most well-known user research activity. As people begin to learn about user experience and the importance of involving users, usability testing is often the first activity they hear about. So when you talk about doing user research, the first thing they may think of is usability testing.

The Truth: Usability Testing Is Just One Type of User Research

Of course, those of us in User Experience know that usability testing is just one particular user research method among many, but we shouldn’t assume that this is obvious to everyone else. We still need to educate stakeholders about the differences between usability testing and other user research techniques, as well as where these activities fit into a design process. If you don’t correct this misconception, stakeholders may wonder why you want to do user research at the beginning of a project, then conduct usability testing during the design process.

Myth 9: Field Studies Let You Observe People’s Natural Behavior

A primary reason for going out into the field to observe people performing tasks in their natural environment is the assumption that it lets you see people’s natural behavior. Instead of bringing people into a usability lab, a focus-group facility, or a conference room, you can go to them and ask them to show you their usual tasks.

The Truth: Your Presence Affects the Participants’ Behavior

Observing people performing their tasks in their natural context is much more realistic than bringing them into an artificial environment like a lab, but the presence of observers and interviewers does affect their behavior. Although people tend to feel more at ease in their own environment, having several researchers observe and question them isn’t exactly natural. This doesn’t mean that the information you gain isn’t valid or realistic—just that you should be sure to consider the effects that your presence has on participants, try to minimize them, and account for these effects in what you observe. I’ve written more extensively about this topic in a previous column, “User Research Is Unnatural.”

Myth 10: Some User Research Is Better Than None

It’s better to do at least some kind of user research than to do nothing, right? Sometimes you don’t have the time, money, or ability to recruit the right participants, so it’s okay to use some shortcuts, isn’t it? For example, you could interview employees at your company who are similar to the actual users, you could do phone interviews instead of visiting people in person, or you could send out surveys. That’s better than nothing, isn’t it?

The Truth: It’s Better Not to Do Any User Research, Than to Enable Half-Assed User Research

You can’t always conduct ideal user research, so it’s understandable that you may need to take shortcuts from time to time. But if that’s always the route you take, you become an enabler. You allow your company or client to check off the user research task and say, “Yep, we did user research.” So, in the end, if you can’t convince stakeholders of the need to conduct proper user research, it may be better to do no user research at all than to allow your team to keep relying on a poor substitute for research.

Instead of giving stakeholders the false sense of confidence that comes from checking user research off their list, help them to recognize the risk of not conducting proper user research. Of course, they may need to suffer the consequences of hitting rock bottom to wake them up to the fact that they need to devote serious time and effort to user research.

Clear Up the Myths and Misconceptions

It truly is a great time for the field of User Experience. More people than ever understand the importance of user experience and recognize the need to conduct user research to inform design. By communicating the value of user research clearly and setting rational expectations for its outcomes, you can help your clients and project team members to gain a deeper, more realistic understanding of the value of user research. When they know what to expect from user research, they’ll be better able to see its value. 

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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