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UX Research Is Essential to Product Success

September 24, 2018

During a project kick-off meeting, my design team was in a discussion with a client when various mental models clashed in the room: “Why should we do that?” “What is journey mapping?” “Why do you need to mention man-hours for doing card sorting explicitly in the UX-effort estimation sheet—and, seriously, what is that?” It became quite evident that it was difficult for our client to understand the meaning and value of UX research. Of course, it would be rather ludicrous for the team to request that the client read about the benefits of UX research. But it became clear that everyone on the project needed a common language and a shared philosophy.

Should your design team dedicate time to UX research—despite the stakeholders and project manager thinking otherwise? How could you convince them of the return on investment (ROI) your client would generate by doing UX research? All too often, when these types of questions arise, teams sacrifice the value that a generative user-research phase would add. Many people think a research phase would be a waste of time and money. However, they are unaware of how user research impacts product strategy—from the conception of an idea to the delivery of the product. To change the mindset of your stakeholders from being naysayers to being advocates for user research, you must help them understand how research can add value to their product and that learnings from user research are an indispensable asset to a product team.

What Is UX Research?

“To be a great designer, you need to look a little deeper into how people think and act.”—Paul Boag, Cofounder of Headscape Limited

The discipline of UX research encompasses both generative user research and evaluative UX research. Generative user research is key and should constitute a full-fledged discovery phase, during which you can discover and analyze users’ behavior, needs, and motivations to contribute context and insights to product strategy and design. By using various user-research techniques during this phase, you can better understand users and their needs, which, in turn, helps your team to identify product requirements.

There are many methods of UX research and analysis that you can apply throughout the phases of the product-development cycle—such as competitive analysis, focus groups, surveys, contextual inquiry, card sorting, journey mapping, the creation of personas and scenarios, participatory design, Joint Application Development (JAD) sessions, and evaluative UX research methods such as A/B testing, design critiques, eyetracking, and usability testing. Each of these UX-research methods has its benefits and drawbacks. They are useful in achieving different goals. So choosing the right UX-research methods depends on your project’s requirements and constraints. Applying the appropriate UX-research techniques within the constraints of your project’s practical parameters is of paramount importance in ensuring a high-quality research plan.

The Importance of User Research

I think you’ll find this story instructive. Earlier in my career, I worked on a project for which the client had early on fixed a deadline on which the product had to go live. Development had to be done from scratch, there were few user stories, and the project’s scope was unclear. When the UX design team reviewed the Scope of Work (SOW), they were was taken aback when they realized there was no mention of user research. So they asked the Project Manager to persuade the client to add user research to the UX-effort estimation sheet. However, the client was not convinced. So, without doing any research, the team got down to business and completed all necessary tasks in the nick of time. The product launched into the market. After a seemingly successful product release, the client was quick to throw a party to celebrate with the entire team. But, within just two days, the Support team had logged significant issues. A few days later, some high-profile, potential customers refused to buy the product.

During a retrospective, upper management tried to find the root cause of this failure. After nearly a week, they concluded that skipping user research had been a fatal error. The product did not satisfy the users’ needs and expectations. At this point, the client’s doubts regarding the importance of user research evaporated into thin air.

User research provides an essential foundation for design strategy. It helps you to create an optimal product for users. Most importantly, you’ll have the data to back your strategy and design decisions.

User research also helps you to identify early adopters who would use your product. To launch your first version of a product, you must find people who would want to buy and use it. User research helps you to discover people who can give you valuable contextual feedback on your product. How might you go about finding these early adopters? As an example, if I were working in the gaming industry, I would first try to find Facebook Gaming groups. Then, I would go to other online media such as LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Craigslist to find other early adopters.

Why You Should Not Skip UX Research

User research is the initial stage and one of the most significant activities of a product-design cycle. All of your team’s hard work, time, and money will be for naught if you end up making something that nobody wants to use. User research should always precede UX strategy because it helps eliminate unwarranted assumptions from the design process. It also helps you to find the right people to enable you to move your product forward, make any necessary changes, and continue iterating on your product design.

Skipping the user-research stage—because of time constraints or for any other reason—can have serious repercussions for companies. Is it possible to create a product if you do not know what problem it will solve for users?

One of the key reasons why most products fail is because companies did not invest time and money in user research. They started off with a feature list or an idea, but did not take the time to understand the problems users would face when using the product.

Here are some of the reasons why you should not compromise on doing UX research—especially during the early phases of your product lifecycle. UX research

  • enables you to create designs that are valuable to users and efficient to use
  • ensures users can complete their tasks without making errors
  • decreases the learning curve for your product by making it easy to learn and use
  • helps you to understand the return on investment (ROI) for UX design
  • lets you identify early adopters
  • validates your hypotheses
  • enables you to learn about competitors’ products

Conducting User Research When Time and Money Are Tight

Time seems to fly by on a project, especially with agile development methods being so prevalent these days. If you miss a deadline by even a whisker, things can turn ugly. If time is so tight that you cannot do UX research before the launch of a product, do it post launch, then quickly fix the issues you discover as the project progresses.

If a stakeholder or client isn’t allowing you time to plan for research, be smart and analyze whatever research data is already available. Be prepared to run usability tests and make adjustments to the design later on.

However, rather than skipping UX research altogether because of time and budgetary constraints, consider employing the following research methods instead:

  • Lean UX
  • guerrilla research
  • minimum viable research
  • heuristic evaluation
  • expert review
  • hypothetical personas

Lean UX

Adopt a Lean UX approach and launch a minimum viable product. You can build and test your design, ensuring that, if the design fails, it doesn’t cost the company a fortune.

Lean UX helps you to avoid assumptions about users’ needs. Each user need should map to a feature, so the success of each feature is measurable. Prototype and test each feature quickly with users—doing testing as frequently as every week or two.

How does Lean UX differ from conventional UX methods? When practicing Lean UX, you form a hypothesis about what solution might work for users, develop and deliver that solution in the form of a minimum viable product (MVP), then instead of assuming that what you’ve built is the right solution, you find the quickest way to validate or invalidate your hypothesis.

The goal is to make things people want to use and design products that are usable. You can achieve this goal either by learning from your mistakes and quickly iterating your designs or by validating your designs in use by users. For Lean UX to yield a productive output, an immense level of teamwork is necessary across the whole product team.

Here are some important points to keep in mind when doing Lean UX:

  • Practice User Experience in a Lean Startup environment.
  • Recognize that Lean UX is not just for designers. It’s for everyone making product decisions.
  • Validate your hypotheses and assumptions.
  • Work with cross-functional teams, comprising Engineering, Design, and Product Management.
  • Create preliminary design deliverables only for the sake of communication. Don’t concentrate on creating pixel-perfect designs for every feature enhancement.

Guerrilla Research

Skipping user research because of a lack of time and budget can gradually set a dangerous precedent within your organization—often resulting in usability disasters. To avoid such situations, do some guerrilla research with a minimal number of users. Hopefully, your project manager will see its value and want to pursue more such activities. There is always the possibility of doing some quick research, but it requires tight collaboration and ample whiteboard space. When you do guerrilla research, operate as if a formal research phase is underway.

Advantages of guerrilla research:

  • informative—Talking to users provides much greater insights than compiling research documents without knowing users.
  • time savings and cost effectiveness—Time is a very important factor in determining the success or failure of a product team or a design effort. If you complete your tasks just in the nick of time and get the desired results, your team will applaud your performance. Otherwise, you’ll be reprimanded. Guerrilla research does not require any formal interviews or brainstorming sessions, which makes it instantly appealing. You can have informal discussions with any users who are available and do your analysis sitting in a coffee shop. You don’t need to follow any particular process, which really cuts down on the time the research takes. In this way, you can target much larger groups of users and get valuable results quickly. Most importantly, you can also save a lot of money by using this technique.
  • no need for impromptu planning—In guerrilla research, you don’t need any planning. This helps projects move faster and still be more effective. Guerrilla research aids in your making decisions and reduces the risk of launching a product. You can use this type of research to answer specific questions that come up during your design phase, as soon as they are asked.

Disadvantages of guerrilla research:

  • uncertain and erratic—This type of user research is informal and somewhat more erratic than formal lab studies.
  • trivial results—Because this is an informal method of research and you do not follow any process or template in doing the research, the results that you derive from the research may be a bit dicey or inconsequential.

Minimum Viable Research

A product is successful when it helps users easily achieve all their desired tasks. But what happens if—even though your team builds a product within the prescribed timeline—the product gets a lukewarm response from users at launch, and there are almost no buyers? Who is responsible for such a failure? The whole product team, but UX designers often take the most flak if they failed to do any user research at the beginning of the project. Such disasters can be averted by doing user research within the necessary timeframe. Skipping the user-research phase creates problems for stakeholders.

Minimum viable research (MVR) means doing just enough research to learn what you need to learn during the research stage. Once you’ve gathered enough detailed information, you can conclude the research stage. The learnings from this research are useful during the UX-design process, but you do not need to spend much time on research.

Heuristic Evaluation

Heuristics are sets of best practices and guidelines that help you to identify problem areas and potential opportunities—for example, the heuristics that usability guru Jakob Nielsen defined. A heuristic evaluation is an assessment of a digital experience that identifies usability issues. This method often comes into play when adding new features to an existing feature set. In this method, a few UX experts examine a user interface to gauge its compliance with a checklist of heuristics. The timely usage of this evaluation method can help avert post-production disasters. Nielsen created his ten heuristic guidelines way back in the early 1990s. Since then, they have been in wide use by UX experts. By using this method, you can uncover usability problems early and fix them during the design phase. This method can also help suggest the best corrective measures to UX designers.

Advantages of heuristic evaluation:

  • quick, inexpensive feedback—Heuristic evaluation provides feedback to the design team, quickly and inexpensively.
  • collated feedback—It lets you collate experts feedback early in the design cycle.
  • identified usability problems—Choosing the correct heuristics can help you to identify usability problems, which UX designers can fix during the design phase.
  • increased client trust—By increasing your client’s understanding of the usability best practices that are embodied in the heuristics that were the basis for your review, you’ll also foster their trust.
  • usability testing—You can use heuristic evaluation in combination with usability testing.

Disadvantages of heuristic evaluation:

  • need for usability specialists—Only skilled usability specialists can conduct heuristic evaluations.
  • need for multiple specialists—Conducting a heuristic evaluation requires more than one usability specialist to get reliable results.

Expert Review

An expert review is a UX-research method in which a usability expert evaluates the quality and usability of an application or service based on his experience. The usability expert identifies and analyzes problems and recommends solutions for them. This method saves a lot of time and money. While following a heuristic-evaluation checklist can seem a bit rigid, an expert review is a more flexible method that allows you to focus more on users’ needs rather than just assessing usability based on a checklist.

When using this method, you should generate an expert-review deliverable, which is important in ensuring that UX designers take the usability expert’s findings into consideration during design. While written documents take more time to create and read, they provide detailed information and recommendations. Product teams can use this deliverable as a checklist for necessary design modifications. This method also lets you rank your findings by severity and frequency.

Hypothetical Personas

Typically, personas are profiles of imaginary users that are based on user-research data and act as surrogates for real users during design. Each persona represents an example of a type of user or a role of someone who might use your product or service. While you should normally base personas on data about your actual audience that you’ve derived from user research, if there’s not enough time to do user research, you can create some hypothetical personas, basing them on reasonable assumptions about your audience that you can make from existing data. Hypothetical personas should represent typical users and be believable, but not stereotypical. Later on, whenever the opportunity arises, do some user research and thoroughly review and refine your assumptions.

Advantages of hypothetical personas:

  • team alignment—The team can focus on users’ goals and needs, which become pivotal in making requirements and design decisions.
  • well-defined scope—It is easier to calculate the scope of your design effort when referring to personas.
  • easier design decisions—Personas make it easier to resolve differences and discrepancies when making design decisions.
  • focused design decisions—Personas help focus design decisions on critical tasks.
  • quality checks—In agile, planning and development occur in sprints during which it is helpful to have quality checks. Design deliverables should closely map to your personas. If there is a gap in supporting a persona’s expected behavior, it is easy to see that there is an underlying problem.
  • reduced scope creep—Personas helps prevent scope creep because they make it easier to identify critical tasks.

Disadvantages of hypothetical personas:

  • inability to think like users—For team members who are not capable of empathizing with users, personas can be difficult to understand.
  • inaccurate assumptions—Personas should accurately portray the motivations and frustrations of particular types of users. Thus, by not basing personas on research, you run the risk of their becoming stereotypes and introduce a greater likelihood of product failure.

Conclusion

If a project does not include a formal user-research phase, you can review relevant published research and other prior studies and draw inferences and deductions that may apply to your users. But make it crystal clear to your stakeholders that greater back-end effort is necessary. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll get the extraordinary designs that everyone is seeking when you design something on the fly, after skipping the user-research phase.

If your goal is to create a top-notch user experience for your product, doing user research is just as important as designing your product’s visual identity and interactions. It doesn’t matter how great your product or site looks or how seamless its interactions are, if people are not able to perform their desired tasks efficiently.

Unfortunately, user research does not always get its due attention. Even though user research is necessary to identify problems and establish the facts you need to design optimal solutions, it’s still sometimes difficult to convince clients to include research as a separate effort in the Scope of Work. Plus, it’s often the first activity that gets removed from a design effort when a team faces a time crunch or budgetary constraints.

It is a tragedy that the software industry is not cognizant of the value of UX research in devising brilliant, unique solutions to the problems we confront in product design. In my opinion, UX research is no longer optional. We must conduct UX research to ensure seamless, valuable user experiences or submit to inevitable product failure. 

UX Specialist at HCL Technologies

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India

Apurvo GhoshAs a UX Specialist at HCL Technologies, Apurvo works within a multidisciplinary team to deliver compelling UX designs and services that support business objectives and enhance the way people live, work, and communicate. Apurvo takes a keen interest in helping the team to cope with UX design technology transitions and adds value across teams. He creates solutions that address new challenges in UX design and the visualization of complex data. Apurvo is a Certified Usability Analyst.  Read More

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