The Business Case for User Research

Janis Yee  

There are many reasons a small business might not invest in user research. Here’s to breaking some common misconceptions.

There are many reasons a small business might not invest in user research. I’ve heard it all. This is unfortunate as it’s the one major differentiator that separates real User Experience Design from visual design.

Here’s to breaking some common misconceptions.

It’s expensive.

Fear not. Both quantitative and qualitative user research can be done on any budget, from guerilla testing to surveys. As well, consider that user research pays for itself in several ways:

Improved chance of success with the launch of a validated product or service
Less development time needed to adjust based on user feedback. Consider that once something is fully built out, it is exponentially harder to change later.

I’m already validating with close friends who are also <profession / demographic>.

While your friends are a great resource in a crunch, it can lead to skewed opinions from people who may only want to tell you what you want to hear. Try searching for feedback outside of your circle of companions. You want insights from those with a diverse opinion.

My audience is very specific and hard to reach.

Most user groups are available if you simply reach out. No one is going to refuse to provide their opinion if you are tailoring a solution to their needs. Your audience is not so out of reach as you might think. Here are some suggestions:

  • Need to speak to existing customers? Talk to your customer experience or support team.
  • Gathering insights from future customers? Listen in or participate on sales calls.
  • Doing research on poverty? Go to a shelter.
  • Need to reach specific demographics, like students? Speak to schools or simply find out where these groups hang.
  • Talk to recruitment agencies who specialize in focus and customer feedback groups.

I’ll build it now and validate later.

Your enthusiasm is great! However, this is likely the biggest mistake that many startups make. If you build it, sometimes people will not just come. If you have an amazing idea, start talking about it to your audience instead of going in search of a developer to build it right away. Believe it or not, you can actually involve your users at any stage of the project. Here are a few ideas:

  • Interviews will help you get to know users better and forms the basis of personas.
  • Discoveries from something as simple as this can also help you reframe the problem you are trying to solve.
  • Include your audience in generative exercises to get an early picture of how they see the solution. This can spark an internal ideation session.
  • Validate the usability of your product or service by observing their experience of your prototypes.

Usability testing is okay to start but if that is all you’re doing, you are deeply undervaluing what proper user research can provide.

My UX designers know what they are doing & I know my user.

Unless you or your designers have a real stake in the research, you are not working with the voice of your user. You are working with your assumptions. Most designers presume the use of the usual (read: presumed safe) patterns that almost always work well based on past experience. What worked in the past may not work in the present as audience needs are fluid. Designs must always be tailored to their problems in that moment in time. Coming up with a final solution prematurely based on assumptions can lead to a drastically different outcome for your product or service.

My UX designers can do the research.

While it’s a great idea for a UXD to be active in the research, the amount of work required to recruit users, synthesize and report on results will simply exhaust your poor designer. You can have someone split their role but both jobs (UX and UXR) are full-time jobs unto themselves. Typically, user researchers perform the following duties (to name a few):

  • Recruit users directly or work with recruiters to obtain your appropriate audience.
  • Recommend various research methods based on your goals.
  • Facilitate the user research sessions, often outside of traditional work hours (read: not a 9 to 5 gig)
  • Synthesize their observation notes, creating actionable insights
  • Advise stakeholders and other designers on the strategic product or service direction.
  • Create understanding and empathy around user needs for all stakeholders.

The biggest challenge with having the designer of the prototype performing the research is confirmation bias. There is a chance they might not be able to view the research findings objectively. Conversely, they may tailor the research itself to favour the prototype.

And so here we are.

At some point, you need to trust the person you hired to do the thing you pay them for. If they suggest that deep feedback from 5 people is all it takes to form a conclusion, you need to trust it. They may come back and tell you the results are inconclusive and need to try again or recommend a survey for 25 people instead. That is totally OK.

Additionally, great researchers don’t always work in isolation. Once the raw data is in hand, they can work with you and your designers to synthesize it into actionable feedback which will lay the groundwork to great UX.

Some quick takeaways.

  • Don’t build on gut alone. That is the expensive way.
  • Accept that User Research is part of the product or service journey. Testing as early and as often as possible throughout the design process will benefit you greatly.
  • User Research is a full-time job. Be aware of that next time you feel the need to saddle your designer with the task.
  • Remember user research always pays for itself in the long run by allowing you to objectively build the right thing.
  • Rest easy knowing that with research, you know you are solving the right problems for your users.

Thoughts from Other User Researchers in the Field

I know that I am not alone, so I took this to the “streets” and asked UX Research Toronto about their thoughts in Slack.

Here are some of their responses:

“In my experience, a lot of modern product companies are actually all for doing user research, however, their idea of what user research is doesn’t actually align with reality.”

“Stakeholders…think it’s like yahoo answers where they can ask a question and expect a definitive answer as to which direction they should go in (which often isn’t the case because the question they’re hoping to get answered is far too broad and complex and just leads to more questions).”

“I often hear skepticism on methods, like, why are you only interviewing 5 people? Why are you using analogous methods like card sorting? There seems to be a lot of preference leaning towards quantitative research to reassure stakeholders.”

“Stakeholders can be a part of the synthesis and sense-making process so [your researcher] is not the only one coming up with insights…super important and ensures that multiple people own user research, not just [your researcher].”

“Sometimes people didn’t want to know what users thought because they had put so much work into a feature that they couldn’t go back on it”

“There’s just a big misunderstanding around how research works – people often think that when you’re done building the feature/product you do some testing afterwards to ‘validate’. that doesn’t make any sense, and research should be an ongoing process of learning and de-risking upcoming work”

Special thanks to Tammy and Alec from the UX Research TO for the elegant responses.

Are you a user researcher or small business? Feel free to comment below.

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