Imagine you are at the beginning of a new project: Your client needs help with a redesign of its website or application. And obviously enough, they state the following desire: “We want to improve the user experience, it has to be jaw-dropping for our customers, we want them to fall in love with our product.”
Here is the good news: Your client is aware of User Experience (UX), cares about customers’ needs and sees the value in investing in a great user experience. They asked for an expert with UX skills to help, but do they really understand what it means to deliver an exceptional user experience?
User research is a vital component of UX design. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. UX is more than a bunch of rules and heuristics that you follow in your product design process. UX is subjective, as the name suggests. It is the (subjective) experience that a user gets while using a product. Therefore, we have to understand the needs and goals of potential users (and those are unique for each product), their tasks, and context.
As a UX expert you should already be familiar with the maxim, It all starts with knowing the user.
Now for some bad news; this is the point when you discover your client’s misconceptions about UX.
UX expert: “Ok, let’s start with your users: Who are they? What do they do? What do they want? What are some of their pain points? I would like to talk to them, observe them, learn from them…”
Client: “Oh, we don’t need user research, that’s a waste of time.”
In this post I will try to explain why, and hopefully, help fellow UX specialists in their efforts to convince clients that good UX is next to impossible if it is not preceded by good user research.
No Need For User Research? There Is Always A Need For User Research
You cannot create a great user experience if you don’t know your users or their needs.
Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Don’t simply accept the common argument that there is no time or money to do any user research for your project.
User research should shape your product design and define guidelines that will enable you to make the right UX decisions. User research will shape your product; it will define the guidelines for creating a product with a good experience. Not spending any time on research, and basing all of your design decisions on best guesses and assumptions, puts you at risk of not meeting your user needs.
This is how senior UX architect Jim Ross UXmatters sees it:
“Creating something without knowing users and their needs is a huge risk that often leads to a poorly designed solution and, ultimately, results in far higher costs and sometimes negative consequences.”
Lack Of User Research Can Lead To Negative Consequences
Skipping user research will often result in “featurities,” decisions that are driven by technical possibilities and not filtered by user goals.
“My wife would really enjoy this feature! Oh, and I heard from this person that they would like to be able to xyz, so let’s add it in there too.”
This leads to things such as overly complex dashboards in cars, where the user’s focus should be on driving, not on figuring out how to navigate an elaborate infotainment system.
Many users find automotive infotainment systems overly complex and distracting. Identifying the target audience is crucial to good UX design.
Tesla’s cutting edge infotainment system, based on Nvidia Tegra hardware, employs two oversized displays, one of which replaces traditional dials, while the other one replaces the center console. Yes, it looks good, but it was designed with tech savvy users in mind. In other words, geeks will love it, but it’s clearly not for everyone. It works for Tesla and its target audience, but don’t expect to see such solutions in low-cost vehicles designed with different people in mind.
Poorly designed remote controls are not intuitive, so casual users tend find them overwhelming, resulting in a frustrating user experience.
Old remote controls are another example of hit and miss UX. There is little in the way of standardization, so each one takes time getting used to.
But what about the purely digital user experience? Too many fields in a form, or too much information may overwhelm and drive your users away.
Poorly designed digital interfaces can drive users away. Even if they don’t, they will annoy users and feel like a waste time.
Instead of creating the opposite behaviour, poorly designed and implemented interfaces are more likely to scare off potential users.
Start User Research With Sources For Existing Information
Yes, user research will expand the timeline and it won’t come cheap, but both time and costs can be minimized. You can start with existing, and easy accessible, sources of information about user behaviour to gain a better understanding of user needs. These are:
- Data Analytics
- User Reviews and Ratings
- Customer Support
- Market Research
- Usability Testing
Quality user research requires time and resources. However, you can start by using existing information to get a sense of what your users need.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these sources.
If you are working with an existing product, your client might have some data and insights about its use. Data analytics assist with getting a good overview about general usage: How many visitors are coming to the website, what pages are most visited, where do visitors come from, when do they leave, how much time do they spend where, and so on.
But here is what this data is not telling you: How does the experience feel? What do users think about your service, and why are they spending time on your website? Why do they leave?
For example, your data indicates that users are spending a lot of time on a specific page. What it doesn’t tell you is why. It might be because the content is so interesting, which means users found what they were looking for. On the other hand, it could be an indication that users are looking for something they cannot find.
Data Analytics is a good starting point, but it needs further qualitative data to support the interpretation of the statistics.
User Reviews And Ratings
Your client’s product might have received some user feedback, already. There might be a section for feedback or ratings on the website itself, but external sources may be available as well. People might have talked about it in blog posts or discussion boards, users may have given app reviews in an app store. Check different sources to see what users are saying.
However, be aware of limitations. People tend to leave reviews and ratings about negative experiences. Don’t take this as a reason to shy away from user reviews or to ignore feedback!
“All these complainers… These aren’t the users we want, anyway!”
Instead, try to look for patterns and repetitive comments. Here are a few tips for making the most from user input:
- Check whether any action has been taken on negative comments.
- Compare the timing of negative comments to releases and changelogs. Even great apps can suffer from poor updates, leading to a lot of negative comments in the days following the update.
- Do your best to weed out baseless comments posted by trolls.
- What are users saying about the competition? Identify positive and negative differentiators.
- Don’t place too much trust in “professional and independent” reviews because they can be anything but professional and independent.
User reviews are a good source for collecting information on recurrent problems and frustrations, but they won’t give you an entirely objective view of what users think about your product.
Your client might have a customer support hotline or salespeople who are in touch with the user base. This is a good resource to get a better understanding of what customers are struggling with, what kind of questions they have, what features/functionality they are missing.
Setting up a couple of quick interviews with call center agents, and even shadowing some of their calls, will allow you to collect helpful data without investing too much time or money.
Customer support provides you with a good opportunity to learn about potential areas for improvement, but you will have to dive in deeper to get detailed information about problems.
Your client may have some basic information about the customer base, such as accurate demographic information, or a good understanding of different market segments. This information is valuable to understand some of the factors behind the buying decision.
It does not offer any information about the usage of the product, though.
Market research is a good source of information if you need a better understanding of how your client thinks, what their marketing goals are, and what their market looks like. However, it won’t reveal all relevant details about user goals or needs.
If you are lucky, your client might have done some usability tests and gained insights about what users like or dislike about the product. This data will help you understand how people are using the product and what the current experience looks like.
It is not quantitative research, and therefore you won’t get any numbers and statistics, but it helps you identify major problems, and gives you a better understanding about howyour user group thinks.
There is also the option to do some quick remote testing session by using services such as usertesting.com.
Usability tests are another good way of identifying key problem areas in a product.
How To Educate Your Client About The Value Of User Research
The budget might be small and the timeline tight, but ignoring user research will eventually bite you. Help your clients avoid pitfalls by making them aware of the benefits of user research.
What’s the ROI of good user experience? Knowledgeable UX experts must be able to communicate the value of user research to clients.
Here are some common arguments against user research and how to deal with them:
- We don’t need user research. We trust in your skills as a UX expert
As a UX designer, you need to view user research as part of your toolkit, just like a hammer or saw for a craftsman. It helps you to apply your expertise in practice. No matter how much expertise you have as a designer, there is no generic solution for every problem. The solutions always depend on the user group and the environment, so they need to be defined and understood for every product.
User research will help get an unbiased view, to learn about users’ natural language, their knowledge and mental models, their life context.
You are the UX design expert, but you are not the user.
- Just use best practices instead of research
Best practices originate from design decisions in a specific context; the digital industry is evolving at a rapid pace, design trends and recommendations change constantly, there is no fixed book of rules. We need to be able to adjust and adapt. Those decision should be made based on research, not practices employed by others, on different projects.
- We already know everything about our users
Invite your client to a user needs discovery session to observe how users are using the product. Start with small tests and use remote usability testing tools such as usertesting.com to get some quick insights and videos of users in action.
The outcome might be a user journey map or a user task flow. Aim for a visualized document that identifies outstanding questions so you can define areas that need more research.
- We have personas, we don’t need more research
Personas are a good tool for making your target group more tangible, and for becoming aware of different needs, key task flows and and how that might vary for different groups. It’s the common ground and a good starting point.
However, to redesign a product you need a better understanding of the usage. You need to know how people work with your product, what they do with it, when they get frustrated.
Ask for further details about user stories and task flows to make use of personas.
- We don’t have the budget for it
The above list of sources for information about user behaviour should give you a good starting point for sharing ideas with your client on how to gain user information on a (very) tight budget.
Make your client aware of the risks if product design decisions are made without a good understanding of the user.
User Research Is The Basis Of Every Good User Experience
User experience is still a bit of a “mystery” in many circles: Everybody talks about it yet it is hard to define, as a good experience is in the eye of every user.
It is, therefore, key to gaining a sound understanding of the context, the user goals, and the thinking necessary for designing a truly exceptional user experience.
The more transparent you are with your work process, the better your client will understand your tools and the information you need to make good decisions.
While some clients may not be open to the idea of using additional resources on research, it’s necessary for experience specialists to explain the value of user research, and to argue for further research when necessary. To accomplish this, UX designers will require negotiating skills to make their case.
Luckily, proper user research is beneficial to clients and UX designers, so convincing clients to divert more resources towards research should be feasible in most situations. Reluctant clients may be swayed if you manage to devise a cost-effective user-research method, and I hope some of the tips and resources in this article will help boost user research, even if money is tight.