Debunking 5 common user research myths

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I have worked as a user researcher in a lot of organisations, with various levels of UX maturity. And in most of them, there was one mindset that remained. However important user research was thought to be, it was never important enough to be fully integrated into the product lifecyle. As we became more and more aware that new technology couldn’t be developed without understanding the end-users first, the value of doing research became more recognised. But that is on paper. In practice, what I have noticed is that user research is usually done as an afterthought, or a checkbox to be ticked. Despite recognising the importance of understanding our users, people are still hesitant to fully commit to doing research because there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding how it works.

Here are 5 common misconceptions I have heard or overheard too many times that I would like to address.

“User research is a waste of time”

Research helps us uncover new problems and better explain existing ones. And why would we need more problems to solve instead of finding solutions to the ones we already have? User research is seen as a disruption in the engineering world where the driving force is build-develop-deliver. It slows things down and pushes us to reflect on problems before tackling solutions. But in reality, what takes the most time is realising too late that the thing we built is not useful or doesn’t work for the users. Focusing on properly understanding the problem before development allows us to ideate, test and fail easily. And it is much easier to fail on an idea than on something already fully developped. So it might be difficult to realise it at the time it is happening, but user research is ultimately a gain of time.

Understanding the problems beforehand helps to gain time further down the line.

“Minority isn’t a priority”

One of the most well-known principle in User research is the 5 users sample golden rule, which goes against our instinct which is to think that the most reliable insight comes from how frequently it occurs. Although it is good to know why a problem happens, we need to know how many people it impacts. This is why using mixed methods (combining qualitative and quantitative data) is essential. However, numbers should not be the only way of measuring the importance of a problem.

User researchers are people of details and introspection. We could ask why and why endlessly to one observation, trying to get as close as possible to one individual’s experience (e.g. how they feel, why they feel it). Quantitative methods allow user researchers to step out of that tunnel. But sometimes, one extra why can uncover a great risk. There are pain points we simply do not want to put our users through, no matter how infrequently it was reported to us. Imagine a non-native speaker misinterpreting a medical term, or a hearing-impaired person missing a danger alert. And remember, if it improves the experience of a minority, the chances are that it will improve it for the rest!

Understanding and assessing the risks and impacts of a user pain point should not be neglected in favour of only looking at trends and numbers.

“We can just ask people what they want”

People actually don’t know what they want, or rather, they most likely don’t know how to articulate it. “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. You have probably heard of this famous line said by (or not, it is in fact not known) Henry Ford. The bottom line of this quote is that people don’t know the resources and constraints a business has within its innovation scope. This is why a user researcher’s prime objective is to understand what a user needs, not what the thing that will fullfil their needs looks like. Why would someone want faster horses? To go faster. This is the need. Rather than specifically asking a user to think beyond what they have been through, it is better to ask them to tell a story. What happened? Through tones and frustrations, you can deduce what is needed to make them feel better.

Ask users about what they want to do (their intent), not what they want.

“Why research, the user is just dumb”

“It’s not me it’s you”. Despite a global change towards more user-centric designs, we still put the onus on the users to adapt to the product rather than build a product that is adapted to them. And not only does this expectation come from the business, users have also internalised it. They are not shy of chastising themselves and blaming their inability to use a product on their own lack of skills. The truth is, there are no dumb users, only inadequate designs. When we say “the user is dumb”, what we really mean is “why can’t they use the product if I can?”, but remember that unlike us, users haven’t spent months or years working on it. What seems logical to us might be confusing for a fresh pair of eyes.

The fault is in the design, not the users.

“Doing research is easy “

This one might be confusing at first glance, when more often that not, one of the first headline for any Research 101 article is User research is a team effort or Everybody should do research!! I wholeheartedly agree that everybody should do research, or at least be involved in the process. What I really want to address here is the idea that doing research is just asking questions. User research doesn’t begin when you meet a user, it begins the second an idea is formed or a hypothesis is made. This is when we start to strategise and plan. There are heaps of work to do before the research session, during and after. Although not entirely untrue (we do ask questions after all), there is also a common belief that asking questions is easy. User researchers have been fighting for a long time against their nemesis, the unconscious bias, with a various range of techniques on how you ask questions, and how you analyse answers. Being conscious of things that are by definition unconscious is a tough exercise and it takes practice. If you are doing user research for the first time, it is important that you do approach it as an actual discipline. Take time to learn about it, explore the different methods, and talk with the team about how to make the best out of your findings.

A Landscape of User Research Methods (NNgroup)

Everyone can do user research, but it should be taken as seriously as any other discipline.

Read the full article here

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