User Research: Design Intuition’s Best Friend

User Research helps you understand and focus your creativity

A while ago I read the article «Stop Using Design Research As A Safety Net» from Jonathan Courtney on co.design. In his opinion, stakeholders and product teams refer to the outcome of up-front user research to avoid the responsibility of making decisions. But how can you create and build solutions when you don’t understand the problem/situation? I have listed some points that present more than one facet of User Research and how it can become your partner in your daily design business.

Understanding problems and situations, before solving them

“Designers don’t try to search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. Only then will they finally converge upon their proposal.”
— Don Norman, author “The Design of Everyday Things”

(Up-front) User research helps you view situations from different angles. You and your team can dive as deep as needed into the context and discover correlations, which caused the current situation. Especially for complex problems you need a proper understanding of the situation, which you are dealing with. Up-front User research serves you as a starting point. Even if the path of your project changes through time. To make it clear: If you don’t understand the problem/situation, your solutions will only scratch the surface or even fail. Complex problems need accuracy at all stages of a project.

Research is flexible and reasonable

Booktip: “Just Enough Research” by Erika Hall

«We have no time for research, let’s just start the project.» or «We are working agile.» are often phrases, which you will hear when you speak about the topic. In people’s minds (User) Research is often claimed as «[…] a millstone around my neck”: big, slow and expensive. But it does not have to be. Like all other parts of your projects it depends on the scope. There are enough methods and tools to choose from. User Research works in all kinds of environments. Speak with your User Researcher/Design Strategist (or the person who is conducting the research) and your team to figure out what you can do. This includes research in all kinds of project phases.

If consulting agencies try to sell your customer large research catalogues full of research activities, which you think are not necessary, speak with them. Ask questions like: Why do we need this research? What do you we want to know?

Research inspire and support your gut feeling

Design research both inspires imagination and informs intuition through a variety of methods with related intents: to expose patterns underlying the rich reality of people’s behaviors and experiences, to explore reactions to probes and prototypes, and to shed light on the unknown through iterative hypothesis and experiment.
— Jane Fulton Suri (Partner Emeritus & Executive Design Director IDEO)

Designers are often surprised how inspiring contact with real people can be. I often encourage complete teams to be a part of the research by observing people we interview or testing their ideas. Sometimes you can see new ideas develop in their heads or see them have a «click» moment. I had the pleasure of working with researchers, design strategists and UX Designers who were skilled enough to bring research results to life by portraying the ideas to their team. This motivates and supports the design team in their work. A clear understanding of the situation will boost your possibilities to try new ideas.

Research needs interpretation and (critical) thinking

«Collecting data is not hard; collecting the right data — relevant data — and drawing the necessary insights is.»
 — 
Matt McManus — Director of Product Management at PBS

For each research method you choose to explore or use to measure something, you must analyze and interpret the outcomes. You will find out that a good mix of quantitative (e.g., web statistics, online surveys) and qualitative (e.g., interviews) methods will serve you best. Quantitative methods give you hints at where to start looking closer and qualitative methods will help you to understand why things happen. Research results will not detract from your ability to think freely. They form the basis for decisions. Making decisions is what you do. Research does not mean you and your team should stop asking questions and critically reflect your design decisions.

Design does not mean entertaining stakeholders

The problem with single methods especially «Agile» or «Design Sprints» is, they are treated as a dogma. The only true way, the Holy Grail. Yes, there are good methods and they can help you achieve your goal. But used blindly they will lead you nowhere. Let’s take a look a «Design Sprints». The method from Google helps you to test ideas very quickly by creating prototypes and tests with real people from the relevant target group. A UCD Process in a nutshell. But where are the ideas coming from? When stakeholders are the only source of ideas to test, you just get one perspective, mostly the business perspective. But what about the customers? Do stakeholders’ ideas really serve to solve their problems? From my personal experience, mostly not. It’s all about the right mix of methods, a critical reflection of the situation and asking the people who you are designing for.