Making the Case for User Research
Jul 16, 2014
Clients, at the end of the day, just want to maximize the return on their investment in experience design. Sadly logic, reason, and a good execution plan might not always be enough to get a client to sign the check for user research. Personally, I feel that the best way to demonstrate the value of a practice like user research on ROI is to calculate the risk associated with not doing any research at all.
For example, it can cost up to 100 times more to fix an experience problem after development is complete. Dr. Susan Weinschenk of Human Factors International created a fantastic video that explains ROI in the context of user experience. In it, there is an example case that demonstrates the risk associated with neglecting user research. Consider this hypothetical scenario:
How much money is associated with each user you successfully convert to your brand or service? A low expectation might be $50. If your web site is poorly designed and difficult to use, there will inevitably be a number of potential customers who leave your site behind forever. Imagine if this happens on a small scale, where some 50 people visit your site and never come back… every day. A quick calculation reveals that your company will lose nearly a million dollars in potential customers for every year the design remains unsuccessful. For a fraction of the amount of money your company has missed out on, they can win it back through thoughtfully executed user research.
Let’s take a step back from the numbers for a moment and explore that curious word called “empathy” that permeates most user research discussions. Say you are asked to design a car for your best friend. Let’s call her Jane. Now let’s say you’re also asked to design a car for a stranger you’ve never met. Let’s call him John. What do you know about Jane that would influence the design of her car? Let’s make a list:
- She has two children, ages 7 and 10.
- She generally stays current with new technology.
- She enjoys traveling.
- Her favorite color is green.
- She likes to spend time outdoors with her family.
- She cares about the environment.
- She and her partner make a comfortable amount of money.
Now, what do you know about John that would influence the design of his car? Let’s make another list:
- His name implies that he is male.
Based on all of the information you have about both John and Jane, which design will be more effective? By “effective”, I mean which design will satisfy the user’s needs and also have them fall in love with their car? Hopefully your answer is entirely one sided. Jane is far more likely to get a superior, more delightful experience. This is because the better you know someone, the better you’ll be able to empathize with them, the better you’ll be able to design for them. It is this basic concept that validates user research in the design process.
A few years ago I was asked to help out with the research and design of a mobile app for fitness instructors who were all part of a larger organization. The goal was to create an app that helped these instructors create and use musical playlists to drive their fitness classes. My design team and I took some time to brainstorm what our users might be like and started thinking of features that might work best for them. This was before we talked to any of them. In many cases, design teams stop there. Luckily for us, we were invited to an international conference of these fitness instructors where we could talk to them and get to know them by literally living in their world for several days.
What I found was that our initial perception of them placed a lot of emphasis on the typical stereotype of a “fitness nut.” I made assumptions about them being very regimented, dedicated, meticulous, self-conscious, or proud. What I found was almost entirely the opposite.
After being with these people for even just one day, I found a community of mutually helpful individuals who were free spirited, open minded, focused on good health and general happiness and wellbeing. They were forgiving and accepting; entirely devoid of judgment. Staying active and healthy wasn’t about counting calories or pushing your body to the limit, it was about having fun in a safe environment. These people were no longer strangers, they were friends. Because of that experience, I was in a far better position to design for our users than I ever could’ve been without that research.
“This is all well and good,” your client might say, “but what does that look like? How can we be sure that all of this research is influencing the design in a way that will yield the greatest return on our investment?”
My process is to sift through all notes, interview transcripts, survey responses or any other content I’ve gathered in the research process and search for patterns. Ultimately, these patterns constitute the various facets of your audience’s tendencies, traits and needs. I prefer to use this distillation process to craft user personas. Ideally, these personas will be 4 or 5 Janes (or however many naturally emerge from the patterns you’ve identified). They should be short and efficient, with more realistic, relevant fact statements (like the lists we made for Jane and John above). Keep the “story” aspect of the personas to a minimum. Just enough to be memorable, but not too much so as to overshadow the fact statements. Most of all, user personas are only as good as you are at keeping them involved in the design process. Creating them is only half the battle. It’s the researcher’s responsibility to make sure everyone involved in the project knows them and understands them well, otherwise they’ll be forgotten.
Underneath all the numbers, the logic, and the process, it’s important to remember that designing experiences is all about people. User research is just a fancy term for making new friends. The more you learn about your new friends, the better experience you’ll be able to provide for them. A better experience means a happier, more loyal user who’s willing to recommend that product or service to someone else. And that ultimately translates to an exponentially growing return on investment for your clients.
Happy users means happy clients means healthy client relationships. Win, win, win.