In this fictitious story, Delta was recently seeking a redesign of the interior of their largest planes. Dr. Han Gruber, long retired, was the mastermind of the great designs of the 1950s, just when the airplane industry exploded. Among other things, his team designed the airplane seats and had to determine the best number to place on each side of the plane. He was famous for his quote, “I am going to count to three, there will not be a four.”

Were Dr. Gruber to redesign Delta’s airplane seats in 2020 and not do a bit of user research beforehand, he might be surprised at launch day to discover that Americans will no longer fit in the seats he originally designed. Nor will their children.

From a business perspective, designing first-class user experiences (even for coach seats) is absolutely key to ensuring customer satisfaction and building brand loyalty. Only if a product or service is hassle-free and enjoyable will the user want to return.

What Is User Research?

User research can mean anything from doing interviews with your target group to usability studies to quantitative measurements of return on investment (ROI) on your user-experience design.

User research helps place people at the center of your design process and your products. You use user research to inspire your design, to evaluate your solutions, and to measure your impact.

In this non-fictitious story from 1985, Coca-Cola famously dropped their Classic Coke for a new taste—New Coke. Their faithful customer base was horrified.

The fabled secret formula for Coca-Cola was changed, adopting a formula preferred in taste tests of nearly 200,000 consumers. What these tests didn’t show, of course, was the bond consumers felt with their Coca-Cola. Something they didn’t want anyone, including The Coca-Cola Company, tampering with.

So, did the Coca-Cola folks do their user research or not? They gave taste tests to 200,000 people and yet with their new product enraged their customer base. What should they have done?

Why Perform User Research?

·      To create designs that are truly relevant to your users.

·      To create designs that are easy and pleasurable to use.

·      To show a return on investment.

Create Relevant Designs

If you understand your users, you can make designs that are relevant for them. If you don’t have a clear understanding of your users, you have no way of knowing whether your design will be relevant. A design that is not relevant to its target audience will never be a success. Thus, seats designed for humans who weigh between 100-170 pounds will not be relevant for humans who weigh much, much more than that.

The first step and core of the design thinking process is to empathize with your users. Conducting different types of interviews and observations of people in the contexts where they will use your design is a common method of doing this type of user research.

Talk to your users about how they perceive your design and how they could imagine using it, or involve them directly in your design process, to ensure that you are still on the right track.

·      Is the product usable? Is it logical, self-explanatory and easy to use?

·      Does the product or service solve an existing user problem?

·      Is it accessible for different categories of users?

·      Is the product or service desirable? Does it create a positive experience which the user would be happy to repeat?

Create Designs That Are Easy and Pleasurable to Use

All products should have a high level of usability; we expect our products to be easy to learn and easy to use. If your user experience is not good, chances are that people will move on to another product.

When you are designing or developing a product, you become the primary expert on how to use it and what functionalities it has. Because you know your own product so well, however, you can become blind to functionality in your product that is difficult to use. This is the flaw seen in so many assembly instructions. The author simply assumes that the user knows as much as they do about putting together the product.

User tests work best when they are an integrated part of your work process so that you test your product iteratively and from an early stage of development onward.

Early tests are what we can do on primitive prototypes (e.g., using paper) from there, we progress to more refined prototypes until we have something that resembles the final product. If you only start testing when you have an almost-finished product, you run a very serious risk in that your findings might come too late for you to make larger changes to the product.

For instance, if all the software is done or if you can’t push your release date, you’ll have your back against the wall. So, stay fluid with your design until the very end of the process.

Show a Good Return on Investment

Although the importance of good design has become widely recognized, UX designers and researchers still experience having to fight for resources to enable them to do their work. Executives and shareholders sometimes fail to see the value in investing in user research and UX design.

If you make cuts in UX, you don’t experience the consequences until your product reaches your users. Although we can easily argue for the value of great UX, it is much more effective if we can show it.

This is where studies to show the return on investment on UX efforts are worth their weight in gold (or the weight, at least, of the printouts). If you can show that the changes you made in the design generated more sales, resulted in a larger number of customers, or made work processes more efficient, you have a much stronger case for investing in UX.

User studies to measure the effect of your design are mostly quantitative and can take different forms. You can do A/B tests during development that compare different versions of your design, or you can do studies after your product is released to measure differences in use patterns.

With apps and webpages, you often build in different types of analytics to inform you of different user patterns.

Testing Methods

Interviews: You can get a bunch of information just by conducting an interview with someone. In an interview, you’re able to ask questions and gather facts and statements. If you want to learn more about the user, you can use contextual inquiries or interviews. Did Coca-Cola ask their taste testers if they’d like to see Classic Coke disappear forever?

Contextual Inquiries/Interviews: In contextual inquiries, researchers observe how users interact with equipment and interfaces based on their own environments. Contextual inquiries are beneficial because you are able to interview people when they are doing their tasks with little interference. In these interviews, researchers can learn important things like issues users are facing, the type of equipment they are using, their preferences, and how long it takes to complete common tasks.

Diary Studies: In a diary study, you provide participants with materials and structure to record their daily events, tasks, and perceptions around a subject to learn their behavior and needs over time. The advantage of conducting diary studies include being able to collect longitudinal and temporal information.

Usability Testing: In usability testing, you evaluate a product or service by testing it with a representative set of users. In these tests, people will complete tasks while you observe them and take notes. With usability testing, you’re able to identify problems before they are coded.

User research is an important part of your strategy because it protects you from designing the wrong product. Imagine creating something that nobody wants to use because you didn’t do your research. All your hard work, time, and money would have been wasted.

Another reason that user research is important is that it removes assumptions from the design process. You will have data to back up your design. If research is done correctly the first time, it will save your organization valuable time and money. You won’t have to keep going back and fixing dumb mistakes because users don’t like using your app or product.

With research, you’re discovering the right requirements for the right people at the right time. And you won’t make seats that are too small and destroy 100 years of cola loyalty.

A global team of digerati with offices in Washington, D.C. and Southern California, we provide digital strategy, digital marketing, web design, and creative for brands you know and nonprofits you love.

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