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Demystifying User Research: The Three Tiers of Design 'Goodness'

User research is lauded as the holy grail of good product design by UXers all over the world. However, when timelines get cut short and budgets dry up, it’s usually one of the first parts of the process to get the boot.

Perhaps this is because the term ‘user research’ is a bit of a mystery to the rest of the team. Everyone’s sort of on the same page about how it starts with gathering user feedback. Then some stuff happens, and after that, a set of actionable tasks magically appear in a product backlog. But in a time squeeze, at the end of the day, those tasks are going to appear in the backlog whether or not the team goes out to talk to the product’s users, right? So why don’t we just cut that part out?

“But doing research is going to help us make a better product!” cry out a chorus of designers in desperation, tinged with hints of outrage.

“We’ll do the research and make enhancements later,” reply the product managers, standing in front of their coffers of cash.

The way I see the world, every product falls into one of three tiers of quality ‘goodness’. At the very bottom are those unfortunate products that were built without passing through the hands of any designers. Let’s call this land terribad. Common traits of terribad products are as follows:

  • an inability to find content due to ridiculous navigation,
  • a total disregard for visually impaired folks as marked by contrast and readability issues,
  • errors that refer to mysterious and undecipherable numerical codes instead of telling you what the problem really is.

At the root of these flaws (and the many more that are embodied by terribad products), is the simple condition: no one ever thought about it. No one on the team was given the job of envisioning what this product might be like to use, and as a result, everything was put everywhere and it became a nightmare to use.

We’re now in the tail end of 2016, design is most definitely a thing, and most terribad products are on their way out the dead products graveyard. May they rest in peace.

Products in the next tier, the just-okay tier, were built with designer input, but not with user research. What most distinguishes these products from the terribad products is that someone actually thought about what the experience of using the product might be like. Someone considered what it would be like to try to find a particular bit of information, or what it would be like to click on a menu and have a modal pop up. As a result, these just-okay products tend to make more sense than their terribad counterparts.

But the reason just-okay products are indeed, just-okay, is that they’re designed on a stack of assumptions. The designers might have decided to place yogurt and milk in the same category because they’re both dairy items, as opposed to placing yogurt in the same category as applesauce because they’re both semi-solid items. Or they might have decided that clicking on an option in a drop-down menu should pull up a modal, because they identify a sense of familiarity with that design pattern. And maybe their users totally agree about the dairy category, or expect the modal to appear. But given the plethora of different kinds of humans in the world and the vast array of experiences they may have had outside the realm of the designer’s life, chances are, the users probably see things differently.

The quality of the products in the just-okay tier is really up to how similarly their designers and their users think. For products in this tier, differences between the designers’ and users’ expectations of how things will behave are usually resolved in the user’s ‘learning curve’, or the series of steps the users take to familiarize themselves with the product when first adopting it. Things might seem a bit off at first, but over time, the users get used to the way the product works and it’s a just-okay experience.

Most products fall into the spectrum of just-okay. But a small number of products are in the land of mind-bogglingly-fantastic: the coveted top tier. When using mind-bogglingly-fantastic products, people have the sense that the product was designed for them; it provides them with a seamless, frictionless experience. This is because these mind-bogglingly-fantastic products lift the burden of the learning curve from the users’ shoulders, and turn it into the designers’ job. This happens through the successful execution of a process called User Research.

The goal of user research is to take the assumptions that are baked into the designers’ decisions and validate them with user feedback. Do users really see yogurt and milk in the same category? Do users find the behavior of this link to be jarring? More often than not, the answer is some do and some don’t.

Herein lies the pain and pride of user research: the process it refers to isn’t as simple as the sequence: assumption > yes/no validation > decision. Successful user research delves into why User 1 grouped yogurt with milk while User 2 grouped yogurt with applesauce. It examines the motivations behind the feedback it collects, leading to insights about where the designers’ assumptions might not be true. Incorporating these insights into product decisions is what elevates a just-okay product to the land of mind-bogglingly-fantastic.

A couple of stray thoughts to leave you with:

  • The tier-transforming power of user research applies to product decisions made at every level, ranging from tactical interface-level decisions to higher-level product definition decisions.
  • Some of the need to perform extensive user research is alleviated by the use of common design patterns. Some design patterns are so widely used that the assumption that most users are probably quite familiar with them can be validated from an office desk (obviously it’s a standing desk). However, designers should watch out for the Silicon-Valley-Bubble-syndrome when choosing to use such ‘widely used’ design patterns without research on the merit of their pervasiveness, because surprise surprise! not everyone’s grandma uses a dog-walking app while she is away at a future of AI conference.

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About The Author

UX Architect

Ramya is a UX Architect in the Experience Design practice, who loves diving into messy problems armed with whiteboards and post-it notes. As a UX Architect, one of her favorite activities is to lead product discovery workshops, leveraging her passion for storytelling to drive digital strategy.