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  • Richard Herriott

Don´t forget the biscuits

Is your user research anywhere beyond stage zero?

Sometimes it seems companies go to huge lengths to develop products and somehow manage to skimp on the cheapest and easies bit . They can spending big coin on desks, coffee machines, MacBooks and staff but forget about the coffee and biscuit budget for user research. That means the product ends up being designed for the designers, like the usability horror of on-line banking or the uselessness of touch controls inside newer cars. The time sheet I use at work fails on every level of user-friendliness but it does have a lot of functionality I cant access. The list of such nightmares is endless. They forgot to ask humans what they wanted or asked them the wrong questions.

I´ve been reading some more on user-research in UX product development. This is also relevant for industrial design or indeed any process where you want to make sure the thing you want to do is going to suit the people who might use it. More importantly, user-research can help check if what you think the users want is even what they really want.

Three items caught my eye recently. Two of them are books. One is an article from 2019.

First, the article. Jared Spool discusses the levels of user-research integration. In brief, this is a rubric listing how much the research process is part of a development team´s activity. For Spool, stage zero is like this. It´s worth quoting in full and then you can go and read the rest of the article:

“Stage 0: No user research integration at all

Starting out, our team hasn’t built up any user research capability yet. The developers go ahead and implement an export data feature based on what they think the requirements are, making guesses for anything not specified. They design something the way they themselves would like to use it. (A technique we call self design.)

It isn’t until the feature is delivered and users start using it that we get any feedback at all. What feedback we get likely comes from support calls or sales engineers, reporting back what they’re hearing from the customer.

The feedback is likely distorted and incomplete, so any recommendations or fixes that come from it aren’t effective. The most likely scenario is the feature stays in it’s initial design until some future feature requires a change.”

I won´t go on to the later stages but check if you think your research is in any way like this stage zero. If it´s not, bravo, then go and check the later stages. At DSKD where I work we stress that you can´t beat going out and meeting people and seeing what they want, how their lives are and what the context is.

This brings me to the two books. Once you´ve decided to get past stage zero, and you´ve got the budget for the biscuits and coffee, you need to ask users what´s in their heads.

Stephanie Marsh´s book from 2018 (see the references below for details) offers a practical guide to user research. Like the other book, this is very down to earth. I say this when in fact there´s nothing more down to earth than research. Some people think research is a weird thing academics do. Actually, yes, academics do research. And so should anyone in business who needs to find out what reality is like. That´s where the customers are and that´s where the income stream is.

One of the opening remarks Marsh makes is that you can do research at any time in a project. I have seen student projects where research stops too soon and also project where research is a parcel and part of the process pretty much to the end, ideally culminating in a final test of the prototype.

Marsh presents the fundamentals of research: planning and being clear about what the research is about; best practice and also valuable notes on ethics and legality. That section is worth the cover price, as is the list of references at the end of that chapter. The second half of the book could be very useful for those who have looked at Hanington´s Universal Methods of Design and want to know more about usability and content testing, card sorting, surveys and interviews (for interviews there are even more specialized books). Marsh presents 12 of the most common methods and also explains how to combine them.

Part three deals with analysis and how to present your insights. A mass of data is no use if people just say “huh”. The data has to be communicated but also interpreted correctly and not according to anyone´s agenda. Sometimes the research might suggest you do nothing, leave it as it is. Most industrial designers could use this book and add two- and three dimensional visual skills to make it complete.

Nunnaly and Farkas´ book is very much out of the O´Reilly publications stable: concise, clear and full of examples. The delve a bit deeper into the history of research and I particularly like the simple but necessary point that good research starts with good questions. Asking a good question is not the very start of a process. In fact, it might be that your research question (RQ) evolves as your understanding of the situation evolves. I´d almost say one should be worried if the RQ does not change. The authors offer a division of research into quantitative and qualitative; neither is better, they are complimentary. Numbers mean nothing without values and values are meaningless without hard data. Designers should always ensure both types of research are done: we aren´t artists and we aren´t engineers but we deal with physical stuff, squishy bodies and human emotions at the same time. “Objectivity requires taking subjectivity into account,” as they say in the book.

Both books are valuable items for a design researcher´s bookshelf. They run to a few hundred pages between them, which is a big hint that research is not something trivial, to be ignored or done in 20 minutes.

Marsh, S. (2018). User research: a practical guide to designing better products and services. Kogan Page Publishers. Nunnally, B., & Farkas, D. (2016). UX research: Practical techniques for designing better products. " O'Reilly Media, Inc.".

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