The UX Research Tax

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Sometimes it’s hard to know how much up-front research to do when embarking on a User Experience Design project. User Research can sometimes feel “fluffy” and it’s not always easy to point out the links between design decisions made and specific findings from the research phase. Nevertheless, there is an argument for always doing some research – and that’s because every bit of user research makes you into a better designer overall, even if the immediate benefit to any one design project is less clear.

That’s the “UX Research Tax”.

Who are these people?

In a nutshell, we do up-front research to better understand:

  • the people who will (we hope) use the product we are designing;
  • what they are trying to achieve;
  • how they will go about their tasks; and
  • the broader context in which the product will be used.

In the early days of Human-Computer Interaction, up-front research was a given for every project. This was because we knew very little about how people would adapt computing products to their everyday tasks (which were almost always non-computerised at that point). So every project started with a large amount of research – predominantly “Contextual Inquiry”: basically observing users in their natural environment. (“Users in the Mist”, if you will.)

More recently, there is more debate about how much up-front user research is required. Of course, there are situations where we simply can’t begin without research, because the domain or users are completely foreign to us. (Matt Morphett pointed me to this article from a few years ago by Dan Saffer which sums this up well: Research Is a Method, Not a Methodology.)

Genius Design or “Seen it all” Design?

The term “Genius Design” (think Jony Ives) describes the idea that great designers “just know” what is required for the products they are designing. Somehow these design superstars just have an innate sense of what features a product needs, and how best to present them to gain user acceptance, even fanaticism. They don’t need to do research.

Jared Spool takes a more practical view of Genius Design, and I agree. Jared posits the term “Seen it all” design to describe the ability of a veteran designer to apply their overall body of experience of to a new design problem, without necessarily having to do new research.

Building a Body of Research Experience

All competent User Experience designers are dedicated students of human behaviour. They study human behaviour through formal research, and also through everyday curiosity about what people do, and why.

(They also study human behaviour through self-examination. Although many disapprove of using one’s self as a research subject, there are insights to be gained by introspection that simply aren’t possible by observing, or interviewing, other people.)

It’s this body of knowledge – sometimes explicit observations, sometimes just a general sensibility – that allows designers to make “intuitive” design decisions day-to-day without referring to specific user research.

Which brings me to the UX Research Tax…

Some User Research in Every Project

When people starting out in User Experience design ask me how they can become better designers, I answer in two parts:

  1. Sure, read all the books and blogs and other reference material
  2. Do as much observing of users as possible: formally or informally.

I was lucky when I started out in this field that we were able to do a lot of user research and a lot of usability testing. If I am any good as a user experience designer, a large part of the credit goes to those many many hours watching people deal with interactive products and building a general sense of how people approach them.

For that reason, I suggest incorporating some user research into every project. Even though sometimes you will struggle to specifically explain how the research has contributed to specific design decisions, that piece of research is the tax every project pays towards making you a better designer, and making the designed world a better place.

There’s No Need to be Arrogant

It’s tempting to say we are such good designers we do not need research. Sometimes it’s an ego thing, sometimes it’s because stakeholders don’t see the need, sometimes it’s just because research is hard work and can be tedious. (My suggestion in the latter case is to think about how you can give a more junior designer a break by having them help out with the research – they need that experience more than you.)

Pay the UX Research Tax now in every project – and be a better user experience designer in the future.