Skeptical About the Value of User Research?

What's the Value of User Research? 08/22/2016

While decision-makers agree about the value of user research in theory, in practice it does not always make it into the development process. Why do companies often fail to appreciate the value of user research?

In this short mini-series on user research we will:

  • Address the question of value
  • Outline a few key perceptions based on half truths
  • Identify the “full truth” reality (as we see it), and suggest how to conduct user research given particular project constraints.  

What is the value of user research?

Designers for digital experiences have (or ought to have) two main goals: 1) Design the right thing, and 2) Design it the right way. User research creates value by helping efficiently accomplish these goals.the Value of User Research

What do we mean by “design the right thing”? This means the product addresses a problem and offers a solution that end users value. At Ayogo for example, the problem we address is the struggle to develop healthy habits and sustain a healthful lifestyle. Using mobile technology, our solution builds skills and offers educational info-bites that are useful as they work to build new habits.

What do we mean by designing something “the right way”? For us, this means a solution that users want to use. The experience engages people emotionally with surprising new content, community forums and an experience that is seamless and delightful.

Why do companies often fail to do user research?

There are many reasons for not doing user research: time, money, and difficulty accessing test subjects being three of the most common. And the reality is, often projects do have pressing time and budgetary constraints.

In these situations, the costs of user research may appear to outweigh the benefits. The perceived value of user research may not be strong enough to justify the delay or financial cost.  Yet, statistics show that 70% of software projects fail due to poor requirements. Testing should not be skipped altogether, but scoped to suit the constraints of the project and budget.

Here, we outline a few common perceptions regarding user research. We believe these perceptions represent “half truths”—and we identify the “full truth” reality (as we see it) to accompany each perception.

Perception: User research is time-consuming.

Reality: User research can be time-consuming—but it doesn’t have to be. It is up to the researcher to design fast, flexible tests that suit the project goals and timelines. It is up to the designer(s) to make use of the results. Our next blog post in this series will discuss how to integrate user research under high-pressure time frames.

Perception: User research is expensive.

Reality: Once again, this perception is sometimes true. User research can be expensive but it doesn’t have to be. Furthermore, the statement that user research costs too much indicates that decision-makers do not believe that user research can provide sufficient value to justify the cost. Post #3 in this series will discuss how to integrate user research on a limited budget.

Perception: It is difficult to access users to test on.

Reality: There can be barriers to accessing end users, but with ingenuity these can be overcome. It is important to consider that requirements for test subjects might change depending on your product and your stage of testing. Post #4 in this series will discuss who to target as test subjects and how to reach them.

Perception: User research confirms what we already know. (Or, “We would have designed it that way anyway.”)

Reality: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Again, this perception reflects doubt that user research provides sufficient value to justify the time and expense. One of the best defences here is outlining clear questions and hypotheses a priori, and tying the user research process to your end goals (KPIs). Post #5 in this series will explore how to do this.

About the author: As Ayogo’s Director of Research, Heather Mann, PhD, gathers insights on user engagement through user research and analytics. She then works with design teams to help translate these insights into product designs. For her PhD work, Heather was advised by Dan Ariely, a thought leader in behavioral economics. She brings this lens to bear on her work at Ayogo: why humans behave in less-than-rational ways.