User research is an important part of user centered design because it uncovers the real problems users face – not ones you may have initially assumed were there, or ones that users told you they have, or ones your client predicted would be there. You need to continuously do user research throughout your design process, as this will:
- Help companies to avoid making costly mistakes
- Help design products and services that are relevant and useful
- Help design product and services that are easy and pleasurable to use
- Speed up the decision-making process.
Let’s unpack each of these and look at them in more detail.
User research helps companies to avoid making costly mistakes
Without up-front and continuous research, designers risk finding out later – during testing or worse, after the product launch – that what they’ve designed doesn’t meet users’ needs or doesn’t work in its environment. This can be very costly to companies that might not have the budget to start again.
User research helps in the design of products and services that are relevant and useful
Tim Brown, CEO of the innovation and design firm IDEO has this to say:
“Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task.”
The first step and core of the design thinking process is to empathise with your users and to understand them. User research helps give designers empathy towards users. This is also one of the core principles of having a design thinking approach – you are asking questions directly to your audience, getting their feedback and collecting the data to figure what the problem is that actually needs solving.
The most fundamental reason for doing user research is because it is the only way to understand the people who are going to use your design. If you understand your users, you can make designs that are relevant to them and that solves a problem.
If you don’t have a clear understanding of your users, you might design something that will frustrate, confuse, or make the situation more difficult. A design that is not relevant to its target audience will never be a success, and without adequate user research you have no way of knowing if your design will be relevant.
Let’s look at an example: In 2005, Korean consumer electronics giant Samsung did several ethnographic user studies that completely changed the way it approached designing TVs. Together with the innovation and strategy consultancy ReD Associates, Samsung representatives visited people in different countries to observe how they live and to talk to them about their homes and the TV’s role in their homes. This is a summary of their findings but you can find the article here.
What they found surprised them. At the time, Samsung and most other TV manufacturers primarily designed their TVs with technical specs such as high-quality pictures and sound in mind. The TVs were designed to show off their technical capabilities, but what Samsung found when visiting people was that they viewed a TV more like a piece of furniture. As a TV is turned off most of the time, people do not want it to dominate their living room. So, rather than show off their expensive TV with all its technological capabilities, they tried to hide it away as much as possible.
Following this insight, Samsung changed its design strategy radically, moving the inbuilt speakers to make the TV slimmer and creating a subtler, minimalistic design that would fit more seamlessly into people’s living rooms. Technical capabilities were still important, but they had to be balanced with design choices that made the TVs fit into people’s homes. ‘Home’ was the watchword here, and Samsung got hard to work on the transformation. The challenge involved getting away from treating a living room like a showroom or sports bar and going for ‘harmony’ instead. By 2007, Samsung had doubled its share in the global TV market because it had proven to understand how to make its TVs relevant to a specific segment of its customers.
Samsung understood its users and although not moving totally away from their core competitive advantage to produce TVs with the best technical specs, they incorporated the aesthetic elements in their design to deliver a better product for their users that matched their needs.
User research helps in designing products and services that are easy and pleasurable to use
User-centered design is entirely focused on solving the users’ problem, which makes usability one of the most crucial principles. No matter how aesthetically pleasing your solution is, it won’t be successful if the user doesn’t find it easy and enjoyable to use. In today’s very connected world, people don’t differentiate between the various jobs they want to get done. They’ll expect to pick up your product or use your service and go through the process to achieve their objective while only thinking of what they want to get done, not thinking about the product or service themselves. If it is not easy and pleasurable, chances are that people will move onto another product.
What it is that makes a company provide a great user experience is varied. It could be speed, personalisation, convenience, simplicity – whatever it is, the product design is ALWAYS centered around the user and what they need. This wouldn’t be possible without doing your user research.
User research speeds up the decision-making process.
Research can help you make the right decisions quickly. User research prevents much of the opinion-based debates that go on among members of a product team and ensures all decisions are based on data. User research is also a product designer’s best persuasion tool; it is much easier to convince people you have a good design when you can support your argument with data, and not just your professional expertise and opinion. It is incredibly powerful to be able to say: “Yes, I understand why you would say that, but let’s look at what the research says.”
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the world of UX, download the available infopacks for our NQF level 5 National Certificate in Design Techniques – User Centered Design, or our 10 week online User Experience Design short course.