Designing Technology: Backtracking to Meet Users’ Needs While Innovating

May 6, 2024

In the world of technology-driven design, finding the right balance between relying on our design skills and understanding what users truly need poses a challenging question for UX designers. Should we base our designs on assumptions or dig deeper to solve users’ real problems? How can we steer away from assumptions-based design and instead focus on addressing users’ needs?

The Designer’s Challenge in Technology

When working in the fast-paced world of technology, the unrelenting pressure to innovate often leads to our ideas overshadowing what users really want and need. At PayPal, where I work, quickly implemented design solutions can sometimes miss the mark.

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For instance, I’m currently working on an experiment to make our verification process better. I’ve created different ways in which users can verify their account—using their face, credit card, or ID. These options aim to give users choices when logging in, while keeping their account safe.

But I wonder: Do my designs actually address what users want? Do they need so many ways of getting into their account? While being good at design is great, it can sometimes lead us in the wrong direction. Many designers of technology have a problem with starting to design based on guesses. When we assume we know what users want without checking, we could miss what they really need. That’s where user research comes in.

The User Research Dilemma

Even though things move quickly in technology, taking the time to understand users is crucial. Talking to them, watching how they use things, and analyzing user data helps us to create designs that meet users’ real needs. Conducting user research lets us uncover hidden clues to making better products. It is undeniable that the best way to avoid basing our designs on assumptions is to base them on user research. However, within the reality of technology’s high-intensity workflows and fast-path work environments, it is sometimes hard to make user research happen.

In UX classes or bootcamps, students of UX design learn how important user research is—that they should always test their designs and have proper interviews with users to understand what they need before designing and shipping a product. Before I became a real technology designer, this is what I was always told to do, too. But, as a UX designer working within technology companies’ fast-paced workflows, user research often gets delayed or is missing altogether from my workflows.

In fact, my team has only one UX researcher, who must work on every designer’s projects. Sometimes delivery schedules require that we skip testing or reduce the time we spend on research to meet a deadline. Every designer wants to make sure their product gets tested and perfected before they ship, but it is clearly impossible to make this happen consistently. After few design cycles in which this occurs, many UX designers become assumptions-based designers who iterate their designs based on what they believe rather than what they actually know about users. They get used to working in this way. So how can we focus on what’s most important, which is always key to what we need to think through?

Embracing the Backtracking Mindset

The challenges that we face in designing technology, especially the shortage of UX research resources, aren’t easy to solve. But doing user research is crucial to really understanding what users need. So how can we ensure that user research happens on every project?

By introducing the backtrack, a process that requires looping back to research or design steps that we’ve missed. Backtracking can happen at any stage of the UX design process—whether design, research, or testing. For design, whether you start with a complex or a simple design, if you feel that it won’t actually solve the problem you’re addressing, backtrack. Switching to a simpler approach might be the solution.

During the testing phase, you could encounter numerous challenges. Sometimes, designs do not meet users’ expectations or require significant changes. In situations such as these, designers could hastily implement changes that are based on stakeholders’ feedback. However, you must assess whether such changes genuinely address the underlying problem. If they don’t, backtracking would be wise. Reevaluate the user flow and start anew with a low-fidelity design.

While the backtracking process might seem more time-consuming initially, it ultimately conserves both time and effort and ensures that you make the right changes before a product launches. Although adopting a backtrack mindset appears straightforward, it is often challenging because of our natural inclination toward quick solutions. In UX design, hasty decisions could compromise the product experience, necessitating even greater effort to rectify the issues.

Backtracking also works for UX research—doing studies is the easiest and most effective way of avoiding assumptions-based design. In a fast-paced environment such as the one in which I work, having limited research resources sometimes prevents our getting what we need. But, no worries, backtrack. When you realize you’re designing based on your beliefs, not users’ actual needs, stop. Backtrack and plan some proper user research—whether a workshop, user interviews, or a survey. Your aim is to understand the users’ mindset.

Backtracking to conduct research can happen at any time—even after product launch. Or you could plan research for Phase 2 or Phase 3. If one round of research isn’t enough, focus on quantity. Plan multiple user interviews or workshops. The main idea is to avoid making assumptions, make thoughtful design decisions, and really solve users’ actual problems. As technology designers, our expertise is vital, but so is what users can tell us. We must combine our design skills with user insights, blending our best ideas with our understanding of what the people for whom we are designing actually need.


Creating designs for technology goes beyond aesthetics; it’s about making solutions that truly work for people. As UX designers, our mission extends beyond the surface level of aesthetics to championing the real, nuanced needs of users. We strive to translate their desires, aspirations, and challenges into seamless user experiences. Therefore, embracing the backtrack mindset is pivotal to a successful design practice.

Design cannot merely be about meeting deadlines or appeasing stakeholders; it’s about meticulously understanding and addressing the core issues at hand from a user-centered perspective. This approach ensures that our designs not only stand out for their excellence but also resonate deeply with users, providing them with genuinely impactful solutions.

At the heart of what we do lies a profound commitment to merging design excellence with a deep understanding of users’ needs. Our design journey requires more than adhering to principles; it’s about the relentless pursuit of interweaving technology with the threads of human-centric design, making design not only more intelligent but also more accessible, empathetic, and impactful. This dedication propels us to redefine the essence of technology, steering it toward becoming a more meaningful and enriching part of people’s daily lives. 

Product Designer at PayPal

Austin, Texas, USA

Jason Zilin ZhouAt PayPal, Jason is building human-centered product experiences that positively impact people’s lives. His overall goals are to utilize the power of design to connect concepts, cultural moments, and people in a compelling way. Jason looks for inspiration from observations, conversations, and formal design research that stretches his perspectives. As a UX designer working in technology, he struggles with the daily challenges of harmonizing business objectives and the user experience. He navigates the complexities of advocating for user-centric design while ensuring the alignment of the solutions he designs with broader business goals. His work experiences have given him a deep understanding of the nuances that striking this balance involves and enables him to offer insights and strategies that resonate both with fellow UX designers who face similar challenges and business stakeholders.  Read More

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