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Back To Basics: UX 101
User experience design that doesn’t involve user research should not be called user experience design.
If we’re “doing UX” and creating something for people, those people have to be involved. The level of involvement is dependent upon a lot of different things: budget, time, and how important user research is to your design. We’ll get into that. First, let’s look into the past... all the way to the year 2001!
It’s 2001. I drive a PT Cruiser (black with chrome pinstriping!), have my own apartment, and just got my first Mac – a G4 Cube. And I’m in my first professional job, as the “Internet Developer” at a credit union. I’m on a marketing team of three people, and love my work. I got to lead top-down redesigns of three websites and leaned heavily on a dog-eared copy of Jeffrey Zeldman’s Taking Your Talent to the Web for guidance and inspiration. And, best of all, I became the “genius designer” who had an answer for everything. (That answer often was Flash!)
In that job, as was the case with many of my early clients and gigs, there was no user research. Not a drop! I wasn’t even aware of usability testing until many years later. For the longest time, I was under the impression that design work was about having great ideas and making them come alive… and that was it. I had no idea why users would be involved.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong about designing without talking with users, but doing so introduces risk. It’s design without discovery – understanding why you’re making what you’re making by conducting upfront research. And ultimately, that’s not sustainable. Discovery is essential to good design.
Discovery is the act of ensuring we’re building something not just to build something, but because it’s the right thing to make. We do this by listening to users, listening to stakeholders, and incorporating our expertise into a shared understanding. This shared understanding is what discovery ultimately delivers.
This can be a messy process, particularly to people who treat UX as a wireframe and sitemap exercise or something that designers just do magically. With wireframes or prototypes or code, there is a clear end-of-process signal: this set of pages designed, this code completed. Without equivalent signals, discovery can be perceived as ambiguous. It may be threatening, should we learn that what we want to build isn’t quite a problem-solver. As a result, stakeholders may want to scale or eliminate user research altogether. I get it.
But if we want to build something great together, we have to know what “great” means for the people who will use the thing we build – whether it’s something they’ll use once and promptly forget about, or something they’ll live with every single day. Listening to what users say and watching what they do provides crucial context. After all, stakeholders and designers aren’t users.
Getting to that great point for users, that right point, means we need to let go of a few assumptions about user research.
“We already know our users.”
Sometimes this is true and we’re coming in to bridge the gap between research and development. Other times, the things that are “known” are long-held assumptions that have simply gone unquestioned. I love it when we get to see the research upfront and work from there.
“We’ll just ask our stakeholders.”
Let me check my watch. Nope! Stakeholders still aren’t users. While stakeholders may survey their users, this isn’t the same as direct user research. There’s an added layer of analysis and interpretation; odds are good that analysis will align with a stakeholder’s needs.
“Users are busy and can’t be bothered.”
I believe that almost everyone is busy. But we find time to participate in the things that matter most to us – the things we must do. A research session isn’t just goofing off and asking if people like a certain shade of green; rather, it’s researchers listening, observing, and asking specific questions. All of that work leads to priorities and principles for the project and the design. It has immense value.
“We don’t have the money for it.”
User research comes in many forms. Some are exhaustive, some are specific, some are formal, and some are informal. We’ll start with our best option given a product’s goals and constraints, but there’s flexibility here. The risk of not listening to users can lead to the “wrong” thing being built; redoing it, at that point, is far more expensive.
“Let’s have a focus group and have users tell us what they want.”
I have strong feelings on focus groups; they’re sometimes used inappropriately when deep observation or interviewing would be best. Nevertheless, there’s a misconception that user research is about getting ideas from users and then implementing those ideas with no checks nor balances. In truth, the research serves as one input into the process. Yes, users may share specific ideas on how to solve problems they have. But developing a full understanding of their problems is critical, including why they’re sharing solutions instead of just problems.
I admit it: there was a part of me that enjoyed being the genius designer, that person who had all the answers instantly. But now I’m more comfortable being the person who brings knowledge and expertise to the table, listening to people with empathy and intention. It has made my designs stronger and better. Involving users is an essential part of user experience design.
(I really did love that PT Cruiser, though.)