What UX Designers Really Want from User Research

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A column by Janet M. Six
October 23, 2017

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our panel of experts discusses what UX designers really want from user research. The goals of user research typically include understanding users and the tasks they need to complete. It is also very important to understand exactly how people will use a particular product. The results of user research can help UX designers to better understand users and also to validate their designs.

We must go beyond the surface meaning of analytics data to understand the whys of users’ needs and behaviors. What is behind their needs and goals? Our expert panel believes it is important for UX designers to have a holistic view of users when creating designs for them. We must always keep an open mind during user research and as we analyze research findings. Sometimes we’ll learn something that is very unexpected.

Our experts also explore the need for user research when updating an existing product’s design. Finally, I describe a three-phased approach to updating the design of an enterprise product that is tied to a legacy system, leveraging research findings.

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Every month in my column Ask UXmatters, our expert panel answers readers’ questions about a variety of user experience matters. To receive their answers to your question in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your question to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Mark Baldino—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Warren Croce—Lead UX Designer at Staples, Inc.; Principal at Warren Croce Design
  • Sarah Doody—User Experience Designer; Product Consultant; creator of The UX Notebook
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Peter Hornsby—UX Manager at Distribution Technology; UXmatters columnist
  • Ben Ihnchak—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Jordan Julien—Founder of Hostile Sheep Research & Design
  • Tobias Komischke—Director of User Experience at Honeywell
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA); author of The UX Careers Handbook
  • Jim Ross—Principal User Experience Architect at Infragistics; UXmatters columnist
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist

Q: What do UX designers really want from user research?—from a UXmatters reader

“Whether I’m playing the role of a UX designer, a UX strategist, or a UX leader, what I most want from user research is a revelatory understanding of users’ unmet needs and tasks that would enable me to see beyond any solutions that currently exist in the marketplace,” answers Pabini. “Such learnings can help me and the multidisciplinary product teams I work with to envision innovative solutions that truly improve people’s lives. This sort of in-depth research exploring what might be—what design-thinking advocate Roger Martin calls abductive reasoning—is quite rare in the corporate world, but companies that want to innovate should invest in it. A more typical form of user research that is still extremely valuable—but less likely to change the world—is research to understand the needs and tasks of users within a bounded product space. Only when we understand users’ needs can we build the right solutions to satisfy them.

“As Anthony Ulwick, author of the brilliant book What Customers Want: Using Outcome-Driven Innovation to Create Breakthrough Products and Services, has written about customer research:

‘The method used for gathering customer requirements is not as important as knowing what type of information you want from customers—jobs, outcomes, and constraints—and working to obtain them.’

“These three types of customer data represent the key learnings we can derive from user research—the jobs users need to get done, users’ desired outcomes, and the constraints users must overcome to get their jobs done. UX designers, product teams, and businesses alike can benefit tremendously from these learnings.

“For User Experience to provide maximal value to an organization, we must have strategic impact,” concludes Pabini. “Great user research enables us to design products that people want, preventing our companies from wasting resources on solutions that fail to provide value to either customers or the business.”

“A simple answer could be: UX designers want to see research that validates they’ve designed a solution correctly,” responds Cory. “But UX designers should not necessarily be singled out from a product team. In fact, I’d prefer to state the question more broadly: What do business owners, project stakeholders, and the project team want from user research? In a nutshell, business owners, product stakeholders, and team members collectively want to ensure that a product simultaneously aligns with business goals and user needs, so users will opt to use the product and be able to use it successfully. Of course, UX designers will want outputs from user research that validates the aspects of their product that are in good shape and also suggests improvements for those aspects of the product that still need more work.”

Understanding the User

“UX designers want an understanding of the users so they can make the correct design decisions,” replies Jim. “Design is nothing but decisions. Some design decisions have obvious answers that are based on design principles and best practices, but designers constantly have to make difficult decisions for which the answer isn’t obvious. There are often multiple ways one could design something. If the users need X, design A would be ideal. If the users need Y, design B would be best. Without an understanding of the users, designers have to guess. If they guess incorrectly, this may necessitate an extensive redesign. Design decisions are much easier to make when you have a good understanding of the users and their goals.

“The specific information that is most helpful to know about users is their knowledge, characteristics, the tasks they are trying to perform, their goals in performing those tasks, how frequently they perform those tasks, the environment in which they perform those tasks, and the technology they are using.”

“Early on, during research, we want to gain a firm understanding of what the problem is and who the user is, so we know who and what to design for,” adds Mark. “Having this background information provides the foundation for decision-making throughout the design process. Later on, down the road, UX designers want validation research to confirm what works and what doesn’t.”

Understanding How the User Will Use the Product

“Simply put, UX designers want to know how people are going to use their designs,” says Jordan. “This research begins by identifying what users need—what outcomes they hope to achieve. Once research has identified user needs, a UX designer can begin thinking about the user journey and mental models—or user flows—a product needs to support. This applies to all kinds of user research that we use to identify new or unmet needs, including usability testing. It’s important to note that there are many useful frameworks we can use to identify user needs—for instance, the jobs-to-be-done framework, which involves interviews with people who’ve recently hired or fired a product that does the same job as the one you’re designing.”

Understanding the User’s Why

“In a narrow sense, UX designers want to know what capabilities they should provide to users through design,” answers Tobias. “Think requirements or use cases, which tell us what users need. That’s great, but there’s something missing. How can you empathize with your target users if all you know is what they need? And has that need really come from users or did the project manager just have some ideas? How can you see the actual person behind a requirement?

“In a broader sense, UX designers need to know the whys behind users’ needs. Through user research, designers get a richer, more nuanced understanding of why they must design certain capabilities for users. Designers need context beyond individual requirements. We can represent this richer understanding of users’ needs in documentation formats such as scenarios and user stories, which describe more than just what users need—showing to various degrees the whys in addition to the whats. The basis for this understanding is solid user research that comes from identifying target audiences, engaging with them, analyzing their behaviors, needs, and expectations, then synthesizing that knowledge into insights that we can share—with designers and others—and also track.”

“We want to understand the why behind what people do,” responds Sarah. “It’s not enough to know just what people do—through observation and analytics. We do user research to help us get inside users’ heads and gain a clearer understanding of what drives them to do the things they do. This knowledge then equips us to make smarter product and design decisions.

“But there’s more to it than that. We also want to understand users as people. We don’t just want to know someone is a 33-year-old, working mother with two children, a spouse, and a labradoodle dog. Understanding someone as a whole person requires that we learn about their lifestyle, their dreams, fears, motivations, how technology fits into their lives, and a lot more.

“Similarly, in medicine, doctors don’t just treat symptoms. They have to do tests, ask questions, and get to know a person so they can get an accurate snapshot of that person’s whole life. Without this snapshot, the doctor can’t go beyond the symptom to see what the underlying problem might be.

“We do research to gain an understanding of the person as a whole and inform our decisions, not just for the sake of the data alone.”

Sarah recommends her video “Why You Cannot Understand Your Customers Through Data Alone,” which appears in Figure 1. This video explains why analytics data in not enough and discusses reasons to explore the whys behind the data that we can discover through user research.

Figure 2—Sarah Doody’s video on understanding customers

Video source: “Why You Cannot Understand Your Customers Through Data Alone,” on Facebook.

Discovering the Unexpected

“Our expectations of user research depend on the type of research,” replies Warren. “Some types of research—for example, field studies and surveys—are more open-ended. If you’re fortunate they’ll elicit Aha! moments, and you’ll discover things that you hadn’t thought or didn’t know to ask about. Usability research should be more targeted. You should have a goal going in about what you want to learn. There still may be Aha! moments, but your lens is usually narrower. Research is ultimately about gathering data to inform design decisions.”

Peter quotes Isaac Asimov, who said:

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!—I found it!’—but ‘That’s funny….’”

“Everyone likes to be told they’re right,” acknowledges Peter. “But, in research, what is far more interesting is to hear that you’re wrong—that some belief you’ve held about your users is incorrect. Often, such new learnings can trigger further research to understand exactly why your belief is wrong. What is it about these users, in this situation, with this software that is different? Is it a significant enough difference that you should be concerned about it? This research can trigger a change of direction for the product—perhaps a new target audience or market—that is based on evidence.”

Findings That Help You Improve an Existing Product

“When I’m working on an existing application, I want to learn about any disconnect between what the application provides and what users want or need to accomplish their goals,” says Ben. “I’m typically listening for complaints, then asking users to expand on them. Sentences that start with ‘I don’t understand why I have to…’ or ‘Why can’t it just…’ or ‘I wish…’ usually take you down the right path.”

Updating the design of an existing product presents particular challenges: not only do you need to improve the product’s design, you must also avoid making so many changes that the new product is unrecognizable to current users. For consumer products that people buy in an online marketplace that has ratings and comments, customer reviews can be a goldmine of information for a redesign. They let you get a true picture of how well the product is actually working for users. First, try updating a prototype of the product leveraging users’ feedback. Then, conduct user research to discover how you might even better serve users who are, hopefully, no longer so frustrated.

Updating the design of an enterprise product can be trickier. First, the bad news: as our expert panel discussed in my Ask UXmatters column “The Differences Between Enterprise and Consumer UX Design,” enterprise products often lack good UX design. The good news: you may be able to quickly have a positive impact on users because simply applying basic UX design principles and patterns can greatly improve the existing design in a short time. However, when you’re designing enterprise products, integrating new UX designs with legacy systems and management processes can be challenging. In this difficult situation, it can be useful to take a three-phase approach:

  1. Determine what the users and other stakeholders need.
  2. Evaluate the legacy system to understand its value. You might be able to apply the legacy system in ways that differ from current operations.
  3. Create a design that bridges the needs of the users and stakeholders and the power of the legacy system—making sure you meet as many user needs as possible.

Of course, Step 3 is the most difficult. You’ll earn your place as an enterprise UX design specialist as you weave together two disparate worlds. During user research, determine what is working and what does not work in the current design. You must also understand what the legacy system offers and how current management systems could better support the user experience.

As UX designers, we must stand up for the user and challenge anything that would adversely affect the user experience. This may necessitate our improving a process or management system, as well a product’s user interface. When challenging the status quo, it might be helpful to remember Richard Branson’s advice from Screw It, Let’s Do It: if the reason you’re doing something a certain way is because your company has always done it that way, it’s probably time to find another way to do it! 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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