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I’ve never regretted doing user research

As a company, we are very focussed on the right execution. We pride ourselves in being efficient in how we spend our time in a design project. As a design services firm, we are billing for our time, and the client has to get the right result for their money.

For instance, given just a few weeks to design something, we will try to time the project in a manner that we can maximise the end result. This is client services 101 and I don’t think we are unique here.

Most of our projects are redesigns of existing software, where there are many “knowns” and not that many “unknowns”. It depends on the project, but often there is already a clear idea of what is wrong with the current version of the software. Information about what should change resides with the product manager, customer support etc.

There is often this notion that “we” (i.e. the combination of us as experts and our client as the business) already know the problem that we are solving, and that we are merely there to execute upon a known problem set.

Now I feel a change in perspective. Whereas I used to start designing on something without doing too much research, more and more I feel the need to do proper research.

The problems we are encountering in our design projects are sometimes not that clear cut anymore. More and more, I find myself needing to really understand who we are designing for, and which problems they are encountering.

I’ve proclaimed before that first and foremost you need to become a mini-expert in the domain you are working in. If you’re doing something for real estate agents, you better know how they think. If you work in government services, you should know how the government works.

At some point, I don’t remember where, somebody uttered the phrase “User experience design without the user is just theatre”. This sentence struck a chord with me, particularly because I’ve been a bit frustrated by the lack of the user in our design process.

Yes, for a company that does UI/UX design, sometimes we frustratingly are quite far from the actual users.

I’ve been trying to make user research a priority where I can, but it’s still very easy to go into execution mode and forget about the user for weeks on end. Obviously in every design decision we have the user in mind; but this is a totally different thing than actually talking to the user.

Then, there is the difficulty of obtaining permission to do user research at all. Over time I’ve collected a list of excuses why it was “not necessary” to do user research, from the client side. These reasons include the following:

  • no budget
  • we already know what the problem is
  • we are going to do it ourselves

Some less common ones are:

  • we got burned before by poor user research
  • our product is a secret, so we can’t tell anyone about it
  • a business analyst will do it for you

Whatever the reasons were to not do it, if I convinced clients in the end to do it, I’ve never regretted doing user research.

I always learned something useful which found its way into the project. Here’s to more user research in 2021. 

Johan Ronsse

About the author

Johan Ronsse is an interface designer who is trying to find the balance between aesthetics and usability. He tweets as @wolfr_2.

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