UX Research With Constraints

I recently had a conversation with a fellow UX designer over what we needed exactly to ensure a project is successful. We agreed that 1) having a solid understanding of who we are designing for, and 2) clearly defining what problem we are trying to solve, are crucial to the success of the project. The part we had different perspectives on was how much time we need to figure the first two questions out.

The process we go through to answer question 1 and 2 is usually at the research phase. Some projects are clearly framed as research projects, in which case they may have more flexible timelines and resourcing plans. Other times, research is somewhat implied in the design brief (e.g. “design an updated dashboard that helps the team monitor progress and prioritize tasks”). These cases are full of uncertainties and are where different practitioners may come to different conclusions.

When I first started my career, I believed that the only way for a project to succeed was through proper UX research at an early stage. So anything less than ideal, such as “short timelines” and “lack of access to real customers”, would irreversibly damage the integrity and final results of the project.

As I gain more experience, my original belief is constantly challenged and tested. It’s rare that a project would start with a perfect scope and budget with lots of allowance for research. That’s what we call constraints — they are everywhere and now I have learned that it’s ok. What’s important is the designers’s ability to dissect the challenge into realistic chunks, prioritize, pick and choose (or even customize) the right research methods to meet these constraints, and, ultimately, communicate that to the team.

Before I dive into any project, I have a checklist I always go through in this order:

  1. What is the goal of the project?
  2. How much time/resources do I have?
  3. “What do we know we know, what do we know we don’t know, and what don’t we know we don’t know?” (credit to Ronald Rumsfeld)
  4. What is the most important assumption we have? How confident are we?
  5. If the timeline, the data/knowledge, and the goal don’t match up, have I communicated it clearly to the person/team who is requesting it?
  6. With the constraints I have, does it make sense to narrow the focus, request more resources, or postpone the project?
  7. How is the research finding going to influence my design decisions?
  8. Now with a complete picture of the project, what research method(s) should I choose to answer the most important questions?

Some of the questions can be answered through a design brief. What I find very beneficial is to actually sit down with the person who requests the effort and go through a Project Canvas. Keep in mind that the team may have subject matter experts (SMEs) and existing data, which is always a good place to start. SMEs are such great helpers, because they can give you a quick download of how a system/process/software works, what is working and what is not. But they cannot replace real customers/people who use your product, may it be a highly specialized internal tool or a consumer-facing product.

Going back to the question we begin with: how long does it take to research on who we are designing for and what problem we are trying to solve? Well, it’s a trick question. It depends on the constraints. It is up to the practitioners to thoroughly examine the predefined parameters, make sense of them and challenge them. The goal is not to do bad research to meet the requirements, or to abandon research all together, but to do good research that fits the real needs of the project. And remember, it is always OK to push back and ask for more time/resource/support/clarification.

Conducting UX research is not rocket science, but it is also not without proper understanding of the context and methodologies. There are many excellent resources on how to conduct UX research and choose research methodologies, such as Meena Kothandaraman and Zarla Ludinso’s framework, I won’t reinvent the wheels here.

For those non-designer folks who are interested in conducting research or would like to start a project that requires design effort, I also strongly recommend that you go through the checklist. If time allows, maybe even check out a crash course on research methodologies. Most importantly, please do not jump to a single method right away, may it be focus groups, survey or usability testing.