Next time you read an article about a user research success story, ask yourself if the conclusions of that research weren’t just common sense (or at least common sense to good UI designers) to begin with. Ask yourself if a good designer couldn’t have concluded the same conclusion that the user research seemed to reach.
Then ask yourself if you could articulate your “common sense” recommendation to a person who doesn’t understand design at all. To someone who may, in fact, be hostile to your so-called “expert” recommendations?
This is one area where research can help: explaining a user interface design strategy to stakeholders, peers, and bosses who have their own agendas and biases.
A great case study can be found in Mark Hurst’s most recent Good Experience blog and newsletter (which I recommend heartily), in which he describes a user research project he recently conducted for a consumer-targeted automobile-research web site.
Seeing the opportunity for much more revenue, the auto-research site – without really acknowledging it, I think – began following a strategy of pursuing those partner deals to the exclusion of other goals. They didn’t just sign up more partners, they designed the customer experience around them. […] The primary reason customers were coming to the site – to find basic price and review data on cars – was gradually pushed to the background.
The last straw came, I think, when the homepage came up for a redesign and, through whatever design process the company used, the new homepage showed up without any search form, or links to cars, except in some secondary areas in the bottom-right of the page. Everything else on the homepage was given over to partner links […] Once again, the primary reason customers were coming to the site – to find basic price and review data on cars – was pushed away. This is when the client called me at Creative Good.
Okay, Mark seems to be suggesting here that the problem with the site’s design was already crystal clear to him from the beginning: that they were prioritizing their partner advertisements over the site’s core functionality. A no-brainer, it would seem.
And yet they went on to conduct formal user research. The results from the customers came back “loud and clear”:
…the site irritates them; they don’t appreciate the insistent partner links; they can’t find what they came for; they would be happy to use a competing site.
Wait, didn’t Mark already see this problem when he first looked at the site? I think he did. He’s a smart guy and he’s been doing this for ages. So why do the research?
In the end, we were able to lead the company to some improvements in their customer experience; with the politics so intense in the company, it was only through the direct customer research that we had any leverage to convince them to do so.
Politics! This makes perfect sense — and frankly I think this is a perfectly appropriate use of research. Mark is not pretending that user research solved the design problem. Mark is making the case that user research is part of business strategy, and part of any business strategy involves getting buy-in from people for whom no-brainer design decisions aren’t quite so obvious. Mark writes:
Customer experience is primarily an organizational issue. If we had made recommendations without taking the internal politics into account, our report would have gathered digital dust in a “consultant reports” folder on a server somewhere.
In short, the lesson from this is not that user research is the foundation of good design, but rather that user research can (among other things) help explain and justify good design decisions to people without deep design skills or instincts — or to talk them out of bad design decisions. But there is no need to pretend that, as an expert designer, you don’t have an opinion of your own that you believe in strongly, or that that opinion has no value unless driven by research results.