USER RESEARCH: The What, Why, and When.

Ever wondered what the fuss about UX research is? You may have thought, “why can’t I open my favorite design software and bring all my ideas to life without the dirty work of research?” Well, unless your goal doesn’t involve creating a useful and usable product for your user, then, by all means, proceed. Because;

“Unless we understand who we are designing for and why, how can we even know what to create and where to begin?”

Image Source: Unsplash

But if this is the goal you have, then please join me as we go on a ride to fully understand the what, the why, and the when of carrying out meaningful user research.

This article promises to be beginner friendly, explaining only the basics so let’s get right into it.

User Research is a research method that focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation and feedback.

Erika Hall in her book ‘Just Enough Research’ stated that to do research is to want to know more about a particular topic (in this case, a user/user group), so you go through a process to increase your knowledge.

The primary goal of user research is to prioritize the user, while also making sure the business needs are met. All of the activities involved in user research have a common aim — and that is to place people at the center of the design process and the products. This also helps to bridge the gap between what the business thinks the user needs and what the user actually needs before an expensive and time-consuming product is made.

For a design to be successful, it must serve the needs and desires of actual humans” — Erika Hall

User research as stated earlier seeks to understand the users and the problems they have in relation to the product you want to build. When you think of the time, cost, and resources it takes to carry out effective user research, it may seem really tempting to skip the entire phase altogether. Sure, you’ll end up saving a lot, but think about the negative impact it’ll have on the final product in the long run.

A great product begins with great user research and a great product solves genuine problems

To practically demonstrate the importance of user research, I’ll employ you to read about The Evolution of the Heinz Tomato Ketchup Bottle. In the example above, we see that Heinz didn’t just redesign the bottle for the fun of it. This informed decision was based on data gathered during the research. You’ll agree with me that if Heinz hadn’t done the initial usability test (this is a qualitative method of user research) of the first bottle, there’s a very high possibility that the product wouldn’t be on the market today. It is possible that a different company would have created an equally delicious sauce in a more user-friendly bottle causing them to have a superior competitive edge over Heinz.

Heinz Tomato Ketchup Bottle

Using the Evolution of the Heinz Bottle as a reference study, I’ll be emphasizing further ‘the why’ of conducting user research as highlighted by Interaction Design Foundation in the course: User Research Method and Best Practices, under these three key reasons:

  1. To create designs that are truly relevant

A design that is not relevant to its target audience will never be a success

It is only when you understand your users that you can make a design/product that is relevant to them. At the core of the design thinking process is Empathy — to empathize with the feelings of your users. User research is one of the best ways to do this as it puts your users and their needs at the very center of your design process. This could be in form of interviews or observational studies. With reference to our example, we can observe that, though Heinz Tomato Ketchup was already performing well in the market, their major customers — the children found it particularly inconvenient to use. The significant changes made to the design of the bottle were only possible as a result of the user research conducted.

2. To create designs that are easy and pleasurable to use

If the user is having a problem, then it is our problem” — Steve Jobs

All products should have a high level of usability. People expect products to be easy to use. They expect to pick up and do things with them while only thinking about what they hope to achieve, and not having to think about the product itself. Using our example above, the evolution of the Heinz bottle, from one which initially couldn’t be used by children to one that was usable to both parents and their kids, with little or no effort wouldn’t have been possible without an effective user research study.

3. To understand the Return on Investment (ROI) of your UX design

If you can show that the changes you made in your designs generated more sales, resulting in a larger number of customers, or made the work process more efficient, then will you have a much stronger case for investing in UX. This is because one can easily fail to see the value of investing in user research as it is not tangible (e.g like new features on an app) and its repercussions can only be apparent when the product has reached the users.

Once again using our example, we see that the results from the user research study carried out not only created a better experience for a bulk of their users but also increased the number of sales of the product. Furthermore, it is said that a wide variety of our daily products like toothpaste, shampoo, etc were made available in upside-down packaging on the basis of the feedback gotten from this research study. This is particularly helpful in scenarios where executives and stakeholders refuse to see the value of investing in UX research by continuously cutting its cost. So, we do user research to show the ROI of our design efforts.

User research fits into the development of a product by being a continuous part of the product development life cycle. You can do user research at all stages of the design process.

  • Foundational Research– research done before anything is designed. This is done to get an understanding of what your target group needs.
  • Design Research– research that takes place during the design and development is done to ensure that the user experience is on track and in line with the highlighted user needs.
  • Post-Launch Research– one that happens when the product is developed and is carried out to measure the effects of your design, to ensure that it successfully meets the needs of the users, and to explore if they need other features or offer any improvements.

And this leads you back to the beginning of the product development life cycle. So user research in itself is a continuous process. Using Heinz once again as a case study, you will observe that the company initially had zero plans to change the design as it was fulfilling its function, after all, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it right? However, subsequent research (post-launch research) showed that there was a need for improvement in significant areas as regards how the users engaged with the product in their homes. This post-launch research wasn’t just done once, but again and again until they came up with the final and current design which meets the needs of the user.

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