Why you should value user research and what to do when people don’t

Every so often we come across people in our projects who don’t believe in or value user research. There could be a range of reasons for this. Poor experience in the past, conflicting priorities, personal objectives, or even just a misunderstanding of what user research is there to do.

It can be rattling to face a vocal research sceptic in front of your clients and colleagues. And particularly frustrating when you feel you have important insights that can add real value to the products and services you’re working on.

So here are the 6 most common challenges we experience, and my advice for overcoming them.

1. “That’s not enough users”

At dxw we do research and analysis in small batches so we can continuously share and adapt to what we learn. This means we’re sometimes challenged by people who are used to surveys and analytics with large sample sizes.

It’s also true that qualitative research requires a much smaller pool of users, because the data you’re collecting is denser and richer.

There’s more than one “bite of the cherry”

The beauty of working in an agile and iterative way is that we engage with users repeatedly throughout the process. So the first set of findings might be based on 5 or 6 people from 1-2 user groups. We go back and speak to more over time, constantly giving ourselves a chance to be wrong, and a chance to evolve our research questions.

Lowering the entry point to insights

If we don’t speak to anyone, we won’t learn anything. So we need to start somewhere. Recruiting 4 or 5 people for your first batch of research is quick to set up and manage. You can often speak to all those people on the same day, and share your initial learning with the team later the next day. You can then make some decisions (but probably not all!) and the team can progress.

It doesn’t have to be in isolation of bigger numbers

And if reliable numbers are something you really need to answer your research questions, it’s important to know that qualitative doesn’t replace quantitative. They’re complimentary in triangulating the evidence. I personally feel there’s a lot more value in understanding both why someone is doing something, as well as what they’re doing.

2. “We don’t have enough time/budget”

Often when budget and timescales are short, user research can be seen as dispensable. There can be a belief that research is slow, and costly. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ll reiterate my earlier point, that not speaking to anyone at all means we’ll learn nothing.

Some evidence is always better than no evidence.

Research is a creative process. We have a plethora of methods and tools at our fingertips. It’s our job as researchers to choose the best method to fit both the budget, time, and questions we want answers to.

The important thing to recognise here is that if you’re short for time and money, compromises may need to be made. We may not be able to recruit the “perfect” spread of participants, or we may not be able to get answers to every question the team has. But by involving users in the process, we’ll at least collect some evidence to support some of our decision making.

And the most expensive and time consuming thing we can do is to create a service that nobody needs and nobody can use.

3. “We already have data on that”

That may well be true, but how do you know that data is still relevant and applicable to your customers today? Customer expectations are constantly changing as they’re exposed to new experiences and competitive offers. You may also find that what they were doing and thinking 6 months ago has changed significantly compared to the present day.

If you want to build on the success of a product or service, you need to be continually checking in with your users and looking for opportunities to improve.

There are 3 main types of needs.

Existing needs

These are needs that you likely know about. The way we fulfil these will have to evolve as our environment and contexts change.

Newer/future needs

Similar to existing needs, these types of needs emerge over time as we’re exposed to new technology, information, and lifestyles. For example, a few years ago we didn’t have such high expectations of brands to be socially and environmentally responsible. Now this is an expectation that’s growing as we learn and understand more about our impact on the environment.

Unrealised needs

Sometimes known as latent needs. These are needs that users can find hard to articulate, or they may be unaware they even have them. We capture these through observations and smart questions. Qualitative research is especially important for identifying these as it helps us to understand customer behaviours and motivations for using a product or service.

All of these types of needs require you to keep your users involved regularly in your processes.

4. “We already know what needs to be done”

Sometimes we’re working with strong leadership who are used to having the answers. It can be difficult to ask these people to take time to reflect on what they’re asking for, and what value it has for users.

Kate Tarling does a great talk on “how to reshape projects” that offers advice on how to break down these requests into value driven objectives.

Design and research teams should make sure we understand our stakeholders as well as we understand our users. There may be a very clear driving force behind these requests. There may be pressures on connected teams that we’re unaware of. By taking some time to unpick some of this information, we’ll be in a better place to offer advice on a chosen course of action.

If stakeholders are adamant that they know what the solution should be, there shouldn’t be any issue in involving users in the process to make sure that solution is the best it can be. This could be through usability testing once you have a prototype available. Doing this will help make sure your stakeholder’s idea is delivered to users in the best way possible.

5. “That doesn’t represent our users”

Sometimes when we learn things we didn’t want to know, it’s easy to blame the messenger. That’s why when I start participant recruitment I like to write a detailed user specification and/or screener. I work on this with the client to make sure they’re in agreement. This goes a long way to avoid this kind of feedback.

However, not all of our stakeholders will be aligned. Often they can have strong views about what customers do or don’t do. If you’re faced with this in your projects there are a few things you might want to try.

Ask stakeholders to join you for research sessions

We usually recommend at least 2 hours of research activity per topic (or sprint). This allows others to see behaviours first hand, and to feel part of the research and analysis process. This makes it much harder to dispute the findings.

Prepare video clips to support your findings

This is an investment of your time, but it can really pay off. Aim to keep clips short (10-15 seconds each) and group similar findings together to build your evidence.

Dig into the issue for next time

Ask your stakeholder to describe in more detail who they feel the users are. Adapt your recruitment criteria and plan to involve more of those users in the next round of research. This is especially important when companies have large customer bases. Over time you can try to have an even recruit across all groups.

Ask for more feedback

What is it about your findings that makes them think it doesn’t represent their users? It could be the user profile isn’t the problem, but that the research question your team has asked you to work on doesn’t align with this stakeholder’s expectation.

6. “Steve Jobs didn’t do research”

First of all, that isn’t true. He had issues with certain methods of research such as focus groups or interviews. But Apple held great faith in using techniques such as ethnography and jobs to be done to really understand user needs.

In fact a lot of successful businesses such as Netflix, Spotify, or Amazon, all have user research teams, and place a lot of value on understanding their customers. This article presents evidence of the increasing investments in research and development by Apple. They recognise this resource as, “critical to the company’s ability to compete and the future development and sale of innovative products and technologies.”

Apple also employed Don Norman in 1993, one of the most well known user centred design advocates. Prior to this they worked with IDEO in the 1980s to design a more usable computer mouse.

So even the most successful and insightful business person still has the humility to sense check and develop ideas around their customers.

Showing the value of user research

Regular user research helps teams to identify new opportunities, test their ideas and new features, and understand problems in current products and services.

And overcoming objections to our methods and findings is an important skill in every experienced researchers’ tool box.

So good luck in overcoming challenges to your research. I hope this advice helps.

This blog post is based on a talk for Product Tank Sheffield. 

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