Summary: User Research is best performed early on and instead of simply validating your requirements, can help shape them.
Clarification: By user research we will discuss Field Studies, not user testing (also referred to as user research). While we're on terminology, Field Studies are also referred to as Ethnography or Ethnographic Field Studies.
Knowing what to do with your user research opportunity is important. The field study is a critical component of UX Design. It is often left out of most people's mental model (conceptions) about UX Design. User experience has two faces: Usability (ease of use) and Desirability (needs and wants). User research can help surface patterns, triggers, motivations and new innovations.
Let's explore how, when and why to make the most of User Research through common misconceptions.
Common misconceptions about User Research
1. "It's too early" (in the dev process). In UX process or UX culture building, it is never too early to learn about user needs and desires. The earlier you conduct user research, the smarter you are going into a new product or redesign. This helps Agile sprint planning tremendously.
2. "It's too late" (in the dev process). Too late is a bigger problem but it depends when. If you have started your project development or are half way through, there still may be time. If you're preparing for launch, it's likely too late. Smaller, lighter field probes can help ground a project that is stacked against too many internal assumptions.
3. "We already have requirements". Requirements represent business logic for what your organization thinks users want. This is typically decided by the Business group, Marketing or Sales. Validating requirements and load-balancing them against what users need to be successful (aka features that are compelling) is consistent with modern product management, which more formally embraced User Centered Design tactics about ten years ago.
4. "We did usability testing, good enough". Usability testing is a different methodology. It reveals different insights, and unfortunately they are not strategic to the insights yielded from field studies.
5. "We don't know what direction we are going with the product yet". User research can help inform product direction. This is strategic to business value, by up to a 4X return if you do it (versus skipping it), according to Forrester Research (2010, ROI of Personas). Understanding that field studies are how you guide business decisions, is one of the most strategic business and product management insights you can benefit from as an organization.
Why is User Research the "holy grail of UX"?
User research is the de-facto activity that you need to make user-centered design decision. This is recognized by the International Standards Organization, and leaders like Apple in it's definitions of Human Centered Design. (See Busting the Myth that Apple Doesn't Do User Research...) It gives you the other side of UX Design, beyond ease of use, beyond requirements-- if done correctly, it can help you out-compete, out-innovate and differentiate features and functionality for an award-winning UX design.
See how Experience Dynamics helped an education software company win Most Innovative Product in Category
Also see how we helped a Disability Rights org create a multi-lingual, award-winning site
Ready to take a bootcamp in User Research? Check out this featured class on User Research: The Secret to Discovering Your User's Needs- beyond Requirements and into Desirability