User research is an important part of providing a great user experience that will get you loyal customers. As Tim Brown, CEO of the innovation and design firm IDEO, put it: “Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task.” So, how can we better understand the user? And what is actually preventing us from doing our user research?
In 2005, the Korean consumer electronics giant Samsung did a number of ethnographic user studies that completely changed the way it thought about designing TVs. Samsung representatives visited people in different countries to observe how they live and to ask them about their homes and the TV’s role in their homes. At the time, Samsung and most other TV manufacturers produced TVs that were designed to show off their technical capabilities. Samsung found that people viewed a TV more like a piece of furniture. As a TV is turned off most of the time, people don’t want it to dominate their living room. So, rather than show off their expensive TV with all its technological capabilities, they tried to hide it away as much as possible.
Following this insight, Samsung radically changed its design strategy. It moved the inbuilt speakers to make the TV slimmer and to create a subtler, minimalistic design that would fit more harmonious into people’s living rooms. This user research made Samsung change its TV design strategy to focus on making more minimalistic designs that fit into the customer’s home.
By 2007, Samsung had doubled its share in the global TV market because it had proven to understand how to make its TVs relevant to its customers.
The most fundamental reason for doing user research is that it’s the only way to achieve an understanding of the people who are going to use your design. If you understand your users, you can make designs that are relevant for them.
In a classic Bain & Company’s survey of customers of hundreds of companies only 8 percent of customers liked the user experience. And yet, 80 percent of the companies surveyed believed that the experience they had been providing was indeed superior.
Now, most businesses have embraced the notion that putting the customer central is key in the age of the customer. After all, a happy customer is quicker to become a loyal customer.
Of course, it’s valuable to hear the opinions of colleagues and domain experts. But don’t stop there. Because if you don't talk to the real users of your product or service, projects risk becoming either client-centric or designer-centric, based on assumptions, and miles away from the customer-centric approach you had in mind.
Let’s address the three main reasons that might prevent you from doing user research.
Reason #1: You Already Know Your Users
Customer-centricity is the discipline of attempting to see things from the customer’s viewpoint rather than from your own. In reality, knowing the users often still comes down to personal assumptions and opinions.
As Steve Krug wrote in his book Don’t Make Me Think Revisited: “It’s only natural to assume that everyone uses the Web the same way we do, and—like everyone else—we tend to think that our own behavior is much more orderly and sensible than it really is.”
Often, user research is perceived to be unnecessary: the client’s domain experts know everything about the product or service and the agency’s designers have their best practices to rely on. That’s how we lose sight of the essential understanding that those “in the business” simply know too much, from too internal viewpoint, to be truly customer-centric.
For example, take a look at the onboarding process. Just try to create an account for your website and go through the whole process like a user would. It’s an experience you easily overlook when you visit the site with your auto-login.
Reason #2: It’s Expensive
Many companies see user research as a nice-to-have or a superfluous spend, and not as the concrete investment it really is. Actually, the outcome of good UX research is always quantifiable. If a team is going to design without user research, then they must be making assumptions about who their target audience is, what the target audience wants to do or will do and so on.
Take one or more of those assumptions and map out the consequences of those assumptions being incorrect. A design that is not relevant to its target audience will never be a success. And that would really be expensive.
Reason #3: You Ask Your Users What They Want
You cannot substitute “asking users what they want” for research. If asked, users will tell you what features they want. That’s valuable feedback, but since your customers tend to point out what they lack in the current design, it’s hard to uncover the new ways to help them even better.
If Henry Ford had listened to the features his customers asked him to provide in his product, he would have bred faster horses instead of building cars.
Now we have these three reasons out of the way, just go talk to your users. It will be worth it.
The Trees, the Forest and Everything in Between
To really understand your users, you need to observe them and ask why they do what they do. Qualitative research will help you uncover that. This research is exploratory and seeks to get an in-depth understanding of the experiences and everyday lives of individual users or user groups.
These are some of the most popular qualitative research methods:
- Guerrilla research: Fast and low cost research methods such as on the street videos, field observations, or reviews of paper sketches.
- Interviews: One-on-one interviews that follow a preset selection of questions prompting the user to describe their interactions, thoughts and feelings in relation to a product or service, or even the environment of the product/service.
- Focus groups: Participatory groups that are led through a discussion and activities to gather data on a particular product or service.
- Thinking out loud: Observations of users completing particular tasks in a controlled environment. Users are often asked to describe out loud their actions, thoughts and feelings and are videoed for later analysis.
- Field studies: Heading into the user’s environment and observing while taking notes (and photographs or videos if possible).
If you need more convincing to include user research at the start of your next project, think back to the example of Samsung’s user tests and the value it created. Without user research, we inadvertently make decisions for ourselves instead of for the users in our target audience. That’s why at every meeting held at Amazon, there is at least one empty chair reserved for the customer. This way, every meeting participant and every discussion is visually compelled to reference the users. That’s how Amazon manages to stay focused on the customer experience.
So, for your next project, find room for user research before you embark on a strategy workshop or design. Anybody can do research. You can do it and it’s certainly worth your time.
You'll also find there is a clear bonus to this activity. Since decisions are backed by research, they’ll be hard to dismiss. You’ll quickly build consensus among all stakeholders.