Making the case for UX research

If you’ve been in the UX design game for a while, you’ll inevitably have had a client tell you that they don’t have the time or the money to do UX research. These concerns come from a real place. They probably are getting pushback on their budget, and they probably do have a deadline crunch.

It’s also not an option to skip user research.

You literally can’t avoid it. In a recent piece on the Marvel blog (worth reading in its entirety), Ben Ralph points out that the moment end users start using your product, it’s being user tested. User testing on the product is going to happen one or way or the other, the only choice you have is whether to learn from it or not.

Genius design

A common client objection to doing UX research, particularly with UX design being a relatively new field, is a misunderstanding about what hiring a UX designer affords them. The client might feel that they’ve already hired an expert on users, so why do they need to test with users? The idea is that a great designer will create great designs, so when time or money is tight, it’s the user testing that has to go first.

This is sometimes called genius design. It has certainly had some proponents over the years, and has worked in some cases. The Palm Pilot was a successful product that had very little user research or testing, and was mostly designed by Jeff Hawkins alone.

Steve Jobs, after all, famously said that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. Apple, often thought of as being amongst the leaders in UX design, has been known to conduct product design in secret with a handful of what could be called genius designers.

a genius designer

On the other hand, Jakob Nielsen has been critical of genius design for years. First of all, he argues, it’s highly unlikely that you have an actual genius available to work on your project. Even if your team does have access to a designer with many good designs and successful products in their portfolio, not all design patterns fit in all cases. No designer gets it right every time. No matter how good and experienced you are, you’re going to get some things wrong. In fact, the only way that you know if your designs truly work in the first place is because of feedback from users. It’s just that in the case of genius design, the first time you’re getting that user feedback is typically after you’ve already released the product.

The thing is, many companies can’t afford products that don’t succeed, products that users don’t want. It’s too risky to develop a genius design without testing it first. You need to understand the problem correctly before you can design the solution, and you can only do that by talking to users. Adopting a user-centred design process increases your chances of success, and user research is a critical part of such processes.

A good designer is certainly a fine starting point, but user research and testing reduces risk and ultimately improves the quality of the product.

Convincing the client

There will still be times when UX research is going to be a hard sell to your client. The most effective way to convince them will likely be to speak to them in their own language.

Poor UX is expensive. If you don’t talk to users beforehand, it’s easy to waste a lot of development time and money building products that users simply don’t want. The client will have to spend more money and time on redesign and redevelopment, and that’s after they’ve (hopefully) figured out what the problem is, which would require some form of user research anyway. You can help them to avoid this by making sure that users are involved from the early stages.

accounting for the benefit of ux

Tell the client how a better UX will impact their ROI. Discuss how user testing can help them to meet their business objectives. Are they looking for better conversion rates and user retention? What about increased sales? Are users not finding their way to pages that your client wants them to visit? UX research can help with all of these objectives.

If the client claims that UX research is out of their budget, you have to convince them to rethink the situation.

Be flexible

As I said before, the client’s concerns about their budget and schedule are real concerns. The money or time crunch that they’re feeling is real. If your preferred UX research process includes multiple rounds of user testing, in a lab, with recording equipment, tree testing, card sorting, and ethnographic studies, maybe the client actually can’t afford the time or the cost.

It’s important to remember that there is no fixed UX process.

If budget is a real concern, discount usability can work well. Discount usability focuses on testing early and often, which can be highly cost effective. The emphasis is on simplified user testing, in a few rounds, with 3 to 5 users per round. Use simplified prototypes with a narrower scope (e.g. supporting a limited number of flows through the interface). You can also include a heuristic or expert evaluation at this stage, which can be particularly helpful at identifying potential issues with the interface that require further study.

Instead of larger studies in your lab, use guerilla usability testing to find users in coffee shops, on the sidewalk, or at the library. Make prototypes out of simple sketches on index cards. Use sticky notes. Just make sure you get out there, and don’t be afraid to show your messy work.

It’s not a requirement of UX research that you follow your favourite process to the letter, but it is a requirement to test the product with users and to learn from it. Users will be testing the product at some stage, no matter what you do. It’s better to do the testing early, when you can ultimately help save your client some time and money.

Form Design UX Series

Part I: User Motivation Part II: Increasing Perceived Benefits Part III: Reducing Perceived Costs

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