The business case for UX research

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Miłosz Michałowski-Żuk
The business case for UX research

There is a saying among UX designers: user experience without the user is just an experience.

Since smartphones became ubiquitous, user experience design has been on the rise. Most companies and even public institutions put User-Centered Design and UX in their briefs. Unfortunately, because of their popularity, terms like User Experience and User-Centered Design (UCD) have become empty shells. Slapping a UCD label on a project is often enough to make stakeholders feel good, without actually following through on what the term implies.

The concept of user-centred design is very simple: take the user into account every step of the way as you develop your product. The implications of this simple concept, however, are surprisingly complex1.

While it’s good that UX is being recognized as an integral part of product design and development, it is quite often that this process doesn’t take into account the user research at any stage. In this article, we’ll address the most common misconceptions regarding UX research, while providing arguments for including research into the product design process.

What is UX research?

UX research encompasses a wide array of methods, many borrowed from social, psychological and marketing studies, that are used to guide the design process. The goal of UX research is to take into account the perspective of the end-user and take the design process from there, which prevents our solutions from being subjective. To put it simply: User research prevents us from designing for ourselves. It makes us think of the end-user every step of the way: who that person is, in what context they’ll use this product or service, and what exactly they need from us. 

The research process has 3 stages:

  1. The first stage is gathering and analyzing data to understand the issue/problem: both from the user and business perspective. At this stage, UX researchers should focus on learning more about project requirements from stakeholders, as well as the needs and goals of the end-users. 

  2. Then researchers conduct interviews, collect surveys, observe prospects or current users, and review existing literature, data, or analytics.

  3. In the final stage, the focus shifts to usability and sentiment. Researchers may conduct usability tests or A/B tests, interview users about the process, and generally, test assumptions that will improve the design.

Why should I pay for the research? I’m already paying for UX!

Short answer: money! Poor UX is simply expensive. By not getting any user feedback, we risk delivering a product that won’t attract its target audience. Every product is being developed for a reason, which can be expressed by a simple equation:

deliver a solution that helps users achieve their goal + users will pay for it = profit

No one has ever forgotten the last part of the equation, yet the first part is frequently lost in the development process. If we want to deliver a product that will be useful and thus will generate traffic, conversion, and profit - it seems sensible to test it before getting it out into the world. And the product will be tested sooner or later anyway. In fact, it starts being tested the moment it reaches our users. But at this point, improving or fixing usability issues or redesigning a flow for the better conversion is much more costly. 

Any UX designer is only as good as the data he or she has. UX design “is more than following a collection of rules and heuristics, […], it is subjective”. The UX designer (and the product team) needs to understand the end-user: his/her needs, problems, goals, fears and the context. The more data is available, the better the solution/product can be designed to meet the expectations, needs, context and so on.

Why ask users? They don’t know what they want...

As a UX designer, I often hear this phrase:

         If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses2.

It is often used (together with Steve Jobs’ quotes) to surmise that having experts is enough to deliver a great product. Why ask the user, he doesn’t know what he wants. But we know it better! Yes, the user may say he wants faster horses, but that is valuable information for a designer. It means that he wants to travel faster: to get to work, to visit his family, to make it to the cinema on time. Then it’s the designer’s job to come up with a solution: it may be a super horse, a speedy bike or a petrol-powered machine (or an electric one). 

As UX designers, we don’t do research to get ready-to-implement solutions. In other words, we don’t do research expecting to hear:

  • I want a hamburger menu here
  • I want the switch that Facebook uses
  • I want augmented reality glasses

Instead, we do research to gain insight, inspiration, and understanding of other human beings and then design tailored solutions. Even history proves this point — Henry Ford disrupted the car industry with his model T. But then he gradually lost the market share as he ignored user needs and innovation, while his competitors (General Motors) listened to what the users wanted. Therefore, while it was enough to deliver a cheap car that only comes in black in 1920, in 1927 it was better to deliver a car for every purse and purpose3 as professed by General Motors’ Alfred Sloan, who believed that business should be managed based on facts rather than intuition.

OK, so we’ll do usability testing.

The popular perception of user research is that it boils down to usability testing or A/B testing. But user research is helpful, if not essential, at all stages of product design: discovery, evaluation, and optimization. It helps us guide the design process at every stage, which reduces costs and time further down the road because it means less re-development and less redesign on the final graphical interface. 

User research has many methods that are helpful in different stages of product design: interviews, focus groups, usability testing, surveys, mouse tracking, fake door testing and many more. The job of the UX designer (or UX researcher) is to choose the right method for a given task (problem) to detect potential errors and opportunities. If we begin with a wrong assumption or a wrong business model, then just doing usability testing won’t be very helpful. Doing the right research at the right time, on the other hand, can help us detect:

  • An erroneous assumption about users’ behaviour,
  • A value proposition that doesn’t appeal to our target user,
  • Confusing navigation and shopping processes that make users abandon our product,
  • Inaccessible UI,
  • A “really cool” new feature that nobody actually wants to use4

At Future Mind, we believe that it’s good to think of UX and UCD as science. Our ideas, designs and decisions are based on a mix of assumptions, previous experience, historical data and expertise. But they are mostly assumptions nonetheless. We should treat our designs as hypotheses that we need to verify. 

User research is precisely the tool that helps us verify and improve. Just like doing a test run of a car or testing code for bugs before deployment, UX research helps us catch bad assumptions, not user-friendly design choices, inadequate business ideas and so on.

The user-centred design process is by definition iterative - each of the created solutions should be verified and improved5.

What gets lost in conversations regarding UX is that it deals with psychology. Users that will be using any product are “psychological” beasts. As far as we can tell — human psychology (mind) is extremely complex, far more than any machine. While there are some patterns or design elements that work in most cases, there’s no universal template that will work in every use case. Your user may not be the same person as Netflix’s users. And even if it’s the same person, he/she may be the same person, but in a vastly different context: different goal, different emotional state, different context and so on.

What’s the actual ROI of UX research, then? 

It’s been a lot of talking so far, but how much can we actually save by implementing UX and UX research? It’s easy to say in general terms, but at the same time, it’s hard to give universal figures when talking about unique products. The most commonly cited figure claims that every $1 spent on UX will bring from $2 up to $100 in return. Sounds impressive, but it’s hard to verify. To get more meaningful values in the context of a particular product, we recommend using the following ROI calculators for:

Conclusion

We will be more than happy to meet and help you find savings in your product development process. At Future Mind, we don’t believe that UX research is important. We know it — based on our experience. At the same time, we understand that different clients have different needs, different objectives and different capabilities. Therefore, we always select tools based on the needs of a particular client. 


[1] Jesse James Garrett, The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond (2nd Edition), New Riders, 26.12.2010, p.17

[2] Peter Vlaskovits, Henry Ford, Innovation, and That “Faster Horse” Quote, 29.08.2011, https://hbr.org/2011/08/henry-ford-never-said-the-fast [retrieved: 12.11.2019].

[3] The Economist, Guru – Alfred Sloan, 30.01.2009, https://www.economist.com/news/2009/01/30/alfred-sloan, [retrieved: 12.11.2019]

[4] Hanna Alvarez, 3 Practical Reasons to Invest in UX Research and Design, 06.01.2015, https://www.usertesting.com/blog/invest-in-ux/, [Retrieved: 12.11.2019]

[5] Iga Mościchowska, Barbara Rogoś-Turek, Badania jako podstawa projektowania user experience, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warsaw, 01.2015, p. 44

Authors

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Miłosz Michałowski-Żuk

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