How to Explain UX Research to Skeptical Stakeholders

April 8, 2019

One day at work, a bright, young engineer approached me, asking how things were going. He said, “I’m curious about UX research. But isn’t asking people what they want a bad way to approach product development? Didn’t Henry Ford say, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’?”

I thought this was a great question, and it gave me an opportunity to dispel some misconceptions about UX research. So I replied, “Great question! Actually, we don’t ask people what they want because you’re exactly right that they probably wouldn’t give us a productive answer. It’s not their job to design the next great product. It’s ours!” Instead of asking participants what our next product or feature should be, UX researchers take a much more nuanced approach. UX research involves careful observation of users along with targeted inquiry and thoughtful analysis.

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Careful Observation

The essence of UX research is careful observation. Anyone can ask questions, but a great UX researcher is also a skilled observer. When people are interacting with a product, how do they react? What are they doing? What is their body language? Are they slumped and standoffish or leaning in and engaged? What are their facial expressions—confused, excited, annoyed, concerned, or delighted? What is their tone—serious, light-hearted, curious, upbeat, or dejected?

For example, while a participant might say he likes a new insights feature, a UX researcher notices that he looks confused and disengaged when he’s interacting with it. The researcher must first notice this discrepancy, then he can dig into what it means. Why does he like this feature? How would he use it in his daily work? If the participant can’t provide thoughtful answers to these questions, he might just be trying to avoid hurting the product team’s feelings. 

I once conducted a study on how users could upload documents to a cloud-based, document-management platform. To save engineering time and effort, the product team wanted to install a floating sidebar menu that, when expanded, displayed an Upload button. When I interviewed participants, all of them really struggled to find this button, which was not seamlessly integrated into the workflow. Plus, it didn’t follow common design patterns. Most participants became increasingly confused and even a little frustrated. Some seemed to wonder whether I was playing a trick on them. Most ultimately gave up trying to find the button. Then I asked them what they expected the floating menu might do. Many stated they hadn’t even noticed the icon for the floating menu!

However, once they saw the Upload button on the menu, they began rewriting history. “Oh, that makes sense, I should’ve looked there.” Participants started second-guessing themselves and blaming themselves for not seeing it. At the end of each session, I asked for the participant’s overall thoughts on the workflow and product. One after another, participants praised the application and said how intuitive and simple it was—even though only 25% of them actually found the button on their own! They told me the product was great as is, but that clearly wasn’t true. I needed to move past what they were saying and consider what they were doing.

During early, exploratory work and contextual inquiries, careful observation is arguably even more important than in usability testing. At ADP, before developing new features, we would often visit the offices of human-resources practitioners and observe them completing their daily work. What did participants’ desk look like? What reference materials were they using? Who did they interact with and how? What were their common painpoints, bottlenecks, and workarounds?

While research participants most likely won’t be able to tell you what next amazing feature you should build, if you observe them, notice what they’re doing, and focus on frequent or painful tasks and their time-saving or ingenious workarounds, you’ll be able to help your product team create meaningful solutions for users’ problems and, thus, provide significant value.

Targeted Inquiry and Thoughtful Analysis

When you’re observing and interviewing research participants, digging deeper and getting to the root of their issues or statements is paramount. Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese inventor and industrialist, pioneered the 5 whys method that Toyota used throughout the evolution of its manufacturing methodology. This is an iterative interrogation technique for exploring the cause-and-effect relationships for a particular problem. By asking “Why?” five times, you can discover the root cause of a problem.

During UX research, you should continually ask participants probing questions. Be sure to get them to explain their reasoning. Don’t make assumptions or mentally fill in the blanks. You might not be thinking the same thing as a participant. Always ask participants to elaborate and explain why. Having them explicitly walk through their thought process makes your job easier! Later, when you’re presenting your findings to your product team, you’ll be able to share a wealth of direct quotations and offer clear reasoning for design decisions. You won’t have to interpret users’ feedback or make somewhat precarious deductions on the fly.

For example, I was recently doing some exploratory research for a new business insights tool. We wanted to talk to clients to find out what they were looking for in such a tool and how we could make it more valuable and actionable for them. After one round of research, instead of just saying, “Users didn’t like the new tool,” I was able to break down their reactions to it. I explained that, while users found the insights tool interesting, they needed some alterations to make it maximally useful for their current business needs. I told the product team that users needed the ability to drill down into the data because they have very specialized use cases. Plus, they wanted the tool to highlight interesting or provocative insights clearly because they have neither the manpower, time, nor training to analyze the raw data and deduce key insights. Offering more explicit reasoning helped me to communicate more effectively: It’s not that the tool isn’t useful. It simply needs some tweaks to make it more actionable and useful to the typical user.

The 5 whys method is a great way of discovering your users’ core needs. So, instead of simply accepting participants’ initial statements, dig into what they’re saying, and ask them to elaborate on and explain their thinking. Breaking things down helps you better understand users’ problems and their underlying causes. Once you have a deeper understanding of a problem, you’re in a much better position to solve it in an insightful, satisfying way. So don’t focus on what people say they want. Instead, focus on discovering users’ core needs, then take your insights back to your product team, and you can all put your heads together to design a delightful solution.


The next time stakeholders ask you about doing UX research—thinking it’s simply asking users what they want—let them know that UX research goes much deeper. People are famously fickle and irrational. Plus, we’re bad at guessing what we want or would make us happy.

So, instead of asking users what they want, focus on what they do and how they act. Observe whether they become frustrated or confused while trying to complete a workflow—where they’ve developed workarounds to cover gaps in functionality. Discover their fundamental needs and issues. Then work with your product team to address those needs and issues by creating an easy-to-use product that delights people. Your users will cherish you. 

UX Researcher at Factual

New York, New York, USA

Meghan WenzelMeghan is starting the UX Research team at Factual, a startup focusing on location data. She’s establishing research standards, processes, and metrics; building partnerships across teams, and leading research efforts across all products. Previously, she was a UX Researcher at ADP, where she conducted a wide range of exploratory, concept-testing, and usability research across products and platforms. She was also involved in ADP’s Come See for Yourself contextual-inquiry program, whose goal was to educate colleagues on the value of UX research and get them out into the field to talk to real users.  Read More

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