User Research, Are You Doing It Wrong?

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You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” Steve Jobs

The web is serious business. As organizations invest in their online presence, the focus has turned to building usable websites. Having a ‘pretty’ or ‘cool’ website just isn’t good enough anymore. For those of us who preach the mantra of user experience, this can’t be anything but great news.

Yet, while businesses talk about the principles of the user-centered design process, many still have a long way to go. Lip service alone isn’t enough; they need to implement its principles correctly. An area mistakes are common in is user research.

User Research is not Market Research

User research must rely on actual user behavior. It involves observing what the user does when using the interface. The interface can be in the form of a paper prototype, electronic prototype or the actual product. Whichever it is, the important aspect is that you’re watching how users behave and not asking them what they have done in the past. Asking users to recall their actions is dangerous because human memory is weak and prone to error. In other words, users just won’t remember details correctly. Humans have a tendency to rationalize their memories by imagining actions and events. It’s just the way we’re wired.

The User is Always Right. Except When They’re Wrong.

Users form mental models based on their experiences with technology that they’ve used. Rarely will a user be able to envision a new product based on a description or an idea. If you present them with different designs of a product and ask for their preference, their feedback will still not be useful. Users are not designers. Asking them about what they want will result in comments on the visual aesthetics and interesting features. The problem is that they may never use those features outside of the interview or testing environment. They’ll definitely give you an opinion and they may well be adamant in their views. That does not mean that what they want is the best solution to what they need; cool does not imply usable. Henry Ford, the inventor of the car said it best:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Henry Ford

Now, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t gain the user’s opinions. The key is to get information about their general attitudes towards a problem or obstacle that they face in the pursuit of a goal or aim. Using this information, it is the designer’s responsibility to addresses that problem.

Context is Everything.

A user playing around with a website isn’t the same as them using it for a specific goal. In reality, when someone goes to a website, they have specific aims or goals that they want to achieve. Their goals on the site direct their behavior. Asking someone to give feedback based on what they see isn’t going to give you data that reflects how your target users will behave.

User research isn’t complicated. But, in order for it to be of any real use, research and design teams must use the correct methods. Failing to do so risks undermining the entire UX process.

Points of Note:

  • User research relies on watching how users behave while using the interface and not just asking the users what they do.
  • Human memory is weak and prone to error.
  • Users form mental models based on their experiences with technology they’ve used before.
  • It is the designer’s responsibility to understand the user’s attitudes towards a particular problem and then design a solution.
  • Users have goals that guide their behavior on a site.

Further Reading:

Nielsen Norman Group – Interviewing Users

Nielsen Norman Group – First Rule of Usability? Don’t Listen to Users

Smashing Magazine – A Five-Step Process For Conducting User Research


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