The vital role of user research in design

To many people, conducting user research is a bit like cleaning up the garage: they know it would be a good thing to do and would bring some real benefits, yet somehow they never quite get round to it.

For others, user research is something that does happen, but only occasionally, such as at the beginning of a big new project. Then there are those who do carry out some form of user research activity fairly frequently, but who tend to just use the one or two research methods that they have used previously.

Obviously some user research is better than none. But if you are really serious about creating a truly great product that satisfies your users’ goals and delivers a fantastic user experience, then investing in user research is going to be paramount to your success.

User research helps us to understand how people go about performing tasks and achieving goals that are important to them. It gives us context and perspective and puts us in a position to respond with useful, simplified, and productive design solutions.

Or, to put it another way,

User research focuses on understanding user expectations, behaviors, needs, and motivations through methodical, investigative approaches. Insights are then used to ensure that all product design decisions do benefit the user.

It helps us identify unarticulated needs and to fill in any gaps in our knowledge about our users, context of use, challenges, and opportunities. It also helps us to align our product and business strategy with the core needs and goals of our users.

User research tools and techniques can be applied to many different aspects of the overall user journey. (Image courtesy of Tomer Maimoni)

There’s an old UX maxim that has been stated many times, but which bears repetition:

You are not your user.

This is why, despite there being many different user research techniques, the common thread between them is spending time with your users. Conducting user research activities helps us identify and address our own biases and misconceptions, which could otherwise be detrimental to the success of the product in terms of user adoption.

Obviously it’s critical to plan a user research study that matches the research questions, so the right kind of data (qualitative or quantitative) is collected using the correct research method at the right time. This is where having experienced user researchers on the team will make all the difference. They will help ensure that any user research studies undertaken follow best practices and target appropriate user profiles. They will also be adept at analyzing the research data and drawing our key insights.

And guess what happens when we don’t do user research or don’t do it right? The chances of product failure go up a few notches, because in all likelihood the user experience may not be optimized for the target end users.

How not to do user research (Dilbert, by Scott Adams)

This is why we’ve very purposefully built up a team of user research professionals within the Hybrid Cloud Design org at IBM. These key team members use various research methods to provide key insights that help us to align our product strategies with the real needs and goals of our users.

To build a culture that puts experience above all else, our user research team systematically observes and measures the moments where knowledge and meaning transact between humans and technology. Our aim is simple: to ensure that every product development decision benefits our users.

This is how our User Research Manager summarizes it:

“Every design is a hypothesis about a market, needs, solution and relationship (What should we design? For whom? Why? How well did we do?) These are the questions that guide our research activities. Our researchers carefully align user needs and goals with the core value delivered through our products.” - Eric Mahlstedt, User Research Manager, IBM

Here are some of the tools that our user researchers make use of:

I’ll not attempt to describe each technique here as each one really warrants its own article, but it’s easy enough to find method summaries online. You can also find out more about IBM’s research practices at www.ibm.com/design/research.

As shown in the above diagram, some techniques are ideal for generative research, which is when you are wanting to learn more about a particular set of users and a particular problem area. This type of research often provides you with insights into the user’s broader concerns and their end-to-end experience. For example, you might simply watch how someone behaves in a particular scenario to learn more about their expectations, habits, and reactions.

Conversely, evaluative research techniques tend to help you assess a particular idea, design, or assumption. For example, you might show someone a UI prototype and ask them to complete a particular task, then monitor how they get on. Or, you might track eye movement or clicks on a website to see how people are actually interacting with it.

Note that both types of research are really important. There is often a tendency for people to dive in with a proposed solution and then carry out some form of evaluative research (e.g. present a user with a new tool and then ask them to provide feedback on it). The problem with only conducting this type of research is that while you might get some useful feedback about your tool, you will likely miss out on some crucial information about the user’s broader context.

To put it another way, if you ask someone if they have a problem with performing a particular task, they might well answer “No” (after all, they do manage to successfully get that task done), yet if you instead observed them actually performing that task, you might well learn a lot about the user, the current process, the main pain points, etc. — all of which will greatly help you as you then seek to design a better solution.

Some of the talented user researchers working in the Hybrid Cloud division of IBM.

Key takeaways

  • Focus on the outcomes (i.e. what you will do with the insights gained from the user research) not the outputs of the user research activities (however beautiful your persona artifacts might look!)
  • User research is just as important as UX or visual design. In fact, it provides the foundation for the initial design work and also provides a way to validate design direction.
  • Consider when you might need to carry out generative research and when you need to carry out evaluative research — and then pick the most appropriate activity.
  • Usability and user experience is measurable through qualitative and quantitative research methods.

Finally, at IBM we run various sponsor user programs that helps us stay in touch with users’ real-world needs throughout the design project. If you are interested in participating in one of these research programs and help influence the next generation of IBM Cloud products, all you gotta do is click on the button below.


Arin Bhowmick (@arinbhowmick) is Vice President, Design at IBM based in San Francisco, California. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.