In one of my previous companies, the design team was in a meeting with a client. “Why should we do that?”, “What is Persona?”, “Why do you have to explicitly mention man-hours separately in the UX estimation sheet for conducting Focus Groups, and seriously, what is that?” As various mental models clashed in the room, it became quite evident that is was difficult for clients to comprehend the value of UX research. Now, it would be rather ludicrous of me to ask clients to read about the benefits of user research as it would sound rather absurd. Apparently, everyone needs a common language and a philosophy that is easy to be au fait with.
Should the company you work for squander away precious time to do user research? And what about the ROI that can be generated from it? Often, you hear these types of questions, and people put aside the value-add of the user research phase. Many people think of research as a waste of time and money, but they are unaware that it impacts the entire strategy - right from idea conception to the delivery of a product. To change the mindset of your stakeholders from naysayers to yeasayers for user research, you have to help them realize how it will add to the value of their product and how it is an indispensable UX asset.
What is User Research?
User research is a full-fledged phase in the UX strategy where you analyze something. In user research, you apply various techniques in order to add context and insight into the design process, such as A/B Testing, Eye Tracking, Contextual Inquiries, Joint Application Development (JAD) Session, Card Sorting, Participatory Designs, Focus Groups, Design Critics, Surveys, and much more. You might be surprised to know this, but user research is needed to devise solutions, establish facts, and even find problems. In addition, it will help you understand users and their needs while identifying the requirements of the product. Applying the right user research technique is an all-important task in a high-quality research process.
No Replacement for User Research
User research is an important part of your design strategy because it helps you create the perfect product, and more importantly, you have the data available to back your design. All your hard work, time, and money is lost if your team or you end up making something that nobody wants to use because you didn’t do your research. User research cannot take a backseat in any UX strategy as it helps to remove assumptions from the design process.
We know how time appears to fly on a project, and as Agile models are more prevalent these days, even if we miss the deadline by a whisker, things can turn out to be very ugly. Therefore, keeping the time factor in mind, if you cannot do user research before the launch of the project, you should do it post launch and fix it as you move further along in the project. As a matter of fact, it is quite useful if you launch with a minimal viable version and then adopt a Lean UX approach. You can build and test the design, as well as ensure that if the design fails, that it doesn’t cost you a fortune.
The issue is that skipping research can slowly become a precedent within your organization, which can often result in usability disasters. In order to avoid this situation, do a little bit of guerrilla research, and hopefully, your program manager will see the value and want more such activities. The ease of this style of research makes us fall for it as there are no big expensive user testing labs that are involved, but rather coffee shops and office complexes. To tell you the truth, there is always some quick research source, but it requires tight collaboration and ample whiteboard space. There are other things that you should do in a user research activity, such as scheduling a meeting with the UX experts and doing some heuristic analysis, which is always considered to be more than beneficial.
Ostensibly, you shouldn't skip research, but if there is no time to plan the research and the stakeholder or client is not making life easier for you, then you need not think that you are in trouble. You can go through whatever research material and data is available, and prepare the research data based on your experience and common sense. You should be prepared to run usability tests and plan for subtle adjustments in the design approach afterwards.
Instead of skipping the user research phase due to time constraints, the Lean UX can be used as an option that works around the assumptions of user needs. Each user’s need should be matched with a feature and the success of the feature should be measurable. Every feature should be small, so that you can test it quickly on a user (as a prototype, say every week or two).
If a formal research phase is not present in your ongoing project, you can review the published research and look at published studies to draw inferences and deductions that may apply to your users. You can also apply the Lean UX methodology to prepare some assumptions pertaining to your users. Subsequently, prepare some hypothetical personas as well as thoroughly review those assumptions whenever the opportunity arises. You can also do some guerrilla research and operate as if a formal research phase is underway. Last but not least, make it crystal clear to your stakeholders that a greater back-end effort is required and it is highly unlikely to get the eye-popping results that everyone is seeking with something that is designed on the fly, by skipping the user research phase.