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.