I remember the first time someone suggested that we should do user research. It was over a decade ago now. We were creating a new online application, and the research agency suggested to put an early prototype in front of users to trial the user experience.
At the time the idea of doing research was very new to me. Since then I’ve watched more than fifty research sessions, and User Research has become a standard operating principle for how we create digital work.
User Research involves putting early work (either rough or polished prototype) in front of end users. Typically an end user would be a customer, but it could just as easily be a staff member. The research method involves a researcher asking the user to perform various tasks with the prototype, to see how well or poorly the digital experience allows the user complete their task.
Over the years I’ve observed these key benefits of including this style of research to build new digital products.
#1. User research roadtests your design in real life
There’s no better way to test a digital product than to put it in front of a user who may one day be asked to use the real thing. Users behave definitely than product teams. We’re invested in the product we’re trying to create. They’re not. We don’t have the specific behaviours and needs users have. They do. Doing User Research is the best way to trial your product in real life.
#2. Recognise what is already being done well
It’s a thrilling moment, when you’re testing something with users, and they respond to it with positive surprise. “I’d love a service like this”, “This would make my day so much easier”. These are things I’ve heard users say when testing a prototype. Every time you receive this type of feedback it’s a small victory for the team working on the initiative, and it provides encouragement for the directions they’re taking.
#3. Knock out under-performing ideas early
You can have nine out of ten fantastic ideas in a product, but if you have one bad one, it can ruin the entire experience. User research allows us to spot and knock-out any under-performing ideas before they taint the good ones. Once I was testing a login screen for a new service. During user research we realised the login screen was constructed made no sense to the user. If we launched with this screen, people wouldn’t have been able to login, and would have missed the great experience the team had created for all web pages behind the initial login and password. When we realised these results from the user research, we knocked out that screen and started from scratch. The result was a screen that made sense to users and made the project a success.
#4. Educate your team on what the customer wants
Digital teams come in many shapes and levels of maturity. From experienced team members through to new graduates, user research is a perfect way to build the team’s understanding of what customers value in new products. Because of this, I always encourage people inside and outside of our digital teams to attend user research, so they can build closer connections with what customers look for.
#5. Be surprised by things you couldn’t have spotted
Sometimes during research users surprise you by coming up with great ideas. I recall a recent project where we displayed a balance figure in the top part of the screen. In one research session the user continually pressed on this balance figure. We ask them why they kept pressing on this area. “I just expect when I click on it, that it will take me somewhere to explain the full history of what makes up this balance,” said the user. What a great idea! And no one in the team had thought of it before. In this way as well as being the customer for your final product, users are also members of your innovation team.
#6. Build upon your design expertise
Digital design expertise is difficult to teach. It’s based on intuition that is honed through a great deal of experience. Design expertise extends from how a user will view a single page of a website, to creating flows and journeys between web pages which will be intuitive and easy for the user to understand. When we say things like ‘this digital experience just makes sense’ we gloss over how difficult it is to make a process simple, elegant and functional. Being involved in user research processes is one of the most dynamic ways for a team to receive feedback on what creates ‘workable design’. It is a form of ‘action learning’, and accelerates the way we build design expertise competencies in our teams.
#7. Give your product the very best chance of success
No one likes to build a bad product. And we would never go into a design project by saying ‘we can’t wait for this product to tank’. The reality is, unless we check our product’s value before it launches, there’s always the risk it will not be well-received by customers on launch day. By doing user research early in the design process and later when the product is polished, we give our product the chance to adapt to any refinements along the way. This fine-tuning gives products the best chance of success before launch.
flickr.com/photos/gcbb/3234180323, Pictures of a cultural probes, Gunnar Bothner-By
flickr.com/photos/psd/14987348884, User Researchers Discuss Feedback, Paul Downey
flickr.com/photos/31068346@N05/15186228803/in/photostream/, IMG_1073, d_jan