How Your Team Defines “User research” can hurt your UX

Summary: ‘User research’ has become a catch-all phrase to mean user testing in many organizations. User research has two main activities: usability testing and field studies. Defining your design research with only a validation exercise (testing) misses the essential discovery of user needs, pain points and desires that Ethnographic Field Studies provide. User research should always mean more than just user testing!

How are you defining user research?

Many organizations we work with and UX designers we provide training for, tell us they do ‘user research’. Once we dig deeper, we find they are defining user research as user testing. This means only half of UX insights are actually making it to your team.  

The two main types of user research your team needs access to:

1) User Testing: Usability testing provides validation of system usability: ease of use, ease of learning, ease of understanding etc. User testing is essential to gaining feedback iteratively throughout a product development lifecycle. In usability testing you test tasks. Tasks performance is the #1 way you measure success. 

2) Field Studies: User interviews and observations give you a day-in-the-life view of the context of use surrounding the tasks measured above. Observing users solving their problems with and without your technology is powerful. Context research reveals habits, problem-solving, decision-making, motivations and pain points. An “ethnography” (culture study) reveals what the tasks should be in the first place, based on user priority. 

A common problem many teams run into when conducting usability testing is the question: What are the user’s tasks we should test? To understand user tasks, you need to conduct field studies, or at the very least conduct some quick phone interviews (if time or budget do not permit a full field study). 

What teams look like who practice full user research…

A team that only or mostly does user testing looks like this…

  • Knows how easy a design or UI is!
  • Can measure the robustness of a feature or functionality.
  • Understands confusions and errors users are likely to make.
  • Finds issues or weak areas in a design concept or existing design.
  • Doesn’t know if the features and functionality are the correct ones that will lead to conversion, adoption or engagement. 

A team that does field studies as well as user testing looks like this…

All of the above (user testing) as well as:

  • Knows how likely users (Personas) will be to use a feature and which users it will appeal to.
  • Can identify tasks, goals, problems users are trying to solve in the first place (along User Journeys). 
  • Understands the motivation (external and internal) of users to engage with a UI.
  • Knows what UI a user needs and when and why they need it. 
  • Can identify helpful new features and functionality based on user workflow or priorities.

Why both research types are important

In UX, usability testing gives you usability. Field studies give you desirability. This explains one of our favorite quotes from the grandfather of User Centered Design, Don Norman, who said “Ease of use is the easy part, getting desirability right is what really matters” (paraphrased). 

To be clear, how your team understands and practices “User Research” is extremely important to how much value you get out of your UX efforts. The definitions above are not just what we practice at Experience Dynamics on our client projects, they are industry standard and are meticulously defined in the ISO standards for Human Centered Design. 

So, if you’re doing user research meaning user testing, you’re missing half the insights. Start by adjusting your definition and practices. Remember that an Outside-In Design approach comes from learning outside the office, not only by inviting users to your office to watch them use your product. 

Conclusion: What is important is not just how someone is using your product, as much as why, when and where they are using it. In the order of UX ROI and impact, context of use is actually more important than ease of use.

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