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The Case for User Experience Research


“For want of research, the experience was lost, and for want of experience, the digital battle was lost.” These could well be the words if we were to refresh the age-old “For want of a nail” poem for the digital age. It is easy to assume you know what your customer wants from your product or service. After all, you have data from marketing, customer service, and social media channels. However, there is a huge difference between imagining and describing how you would use something when compared to actually using it. Users have different attitudes and goals when using a product or service. To learn more about your users, and how your product or service fits into their lives calls for much more than insights gained from social, marketing, and customer service channels. It requires user experience research and testing to derive insights by studying their behavior when they actually use your product or service.

Ignore User Experience at Your Risk

How important is customer experience? It turns out, it is a critical differentiator in today’s digitized world. According to Ed Thompson, Analyst at Gartner, “5 to 10 percent of companies have customer culture at their core; but the rest have been forced to care because all other means of differentiation have been eroded over time.”1 Daniel Newman, in Forbes, calls customer experience “the future of marketing.”2

But how do you create a great experience? The first requirement, according to leading user experience consultants Jakob Neilsen and Don Norman, is to “meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother.” In today’s market, that not only means learning what your customers want, but how they want to consume it as well.3

Shift from ‘How it Works’ to ‘How it is Used’

The most direct route to learning what the customer wants is through user experience (UX) research. Yet, despite the current popularity of UX, attempts to introduce user research into a project often meet with great reluctance. IT leaders may be concerned about the prospect of adding time to an already tight project schedule. They may already have research gathered from problem logs, user conferences, and the marketing department, and may question whether additional research will add value.

But UX research differs from that traditionally done by marketers and product representatives. User experience researchers seek behavioral insights. They want to know how people actually use their products, which may differ considerably from how users say they work. Rather than centering on discussion, as in focus groups, behavioral research more often relies on one-on-one interviews or in-person observation in the workplace. Researchers not only watch what users do, but who they rely on, and what artifacts they use. For instance, observation at an airline call center led to the discovery of sticky notes and charts taped to users’ monitors, which spurred designers to incorporate some of that content into the next release.

Understand the True Value of Your Innovation

Among the many reasons to incorporate UX research into your development process, here are the top three:

  • Your users' unique needs cannot always be generalized from knowledge of other user groups. UX designers should understand those needs.
  • Spending time with users makes it easier for a UX designer to adopt the user's point of view when creating a new experience
  • As new digital products enter the marketplace, customers’ attitudes and patterns of use are changing and research can help you keep up with these trends. It can save you the time wasted in developing a “really cool” new feature that nobody actually wanted to use, or help you test the waters for a new idea

As an IT or a business leader, you know your business better than anyone else, and designers want to know your insights. But do you truly have a 360-degree view of your customers, or is your perception limited to their needs within the current context of your product? How would customers respond if you introduced a new feature or if you acted on a brainstorm to change the way a key function worked? We all strive to innovate, but the value of innovation is most pronounced when it is applied to user goals and needs.

Let UX Research Shine Light on Your Business Truths

User-centered research can be a strategic source of differentiation for the enterprise. Here are some of the advantages it offers:

Drive Business Innovation

In 1994, a director at Procter & Gamble wanted to replace the mop, the ‘horse-drawn carriage’ of cleaning tools. They hired researchers to observe how people cleaned their kitchens and found that people spent almost as much time rinsing their mops as they did cleaning the floor.4

This research begat the Swiffer. The Swiffer was an instant success, chalking up US$ 100 million in sales during the final four months of 1999. With this project, Proctor & Gamble not only reinvented how people clean floors, it changed how we think about the role of design in driving business innovation.

Uncover Hidden Pain Points

You don't have to go out and observe all your customers clean their kitchen floors to make use of research. A few hours of observation can uncover pain points and needs that are not obvious from the IT project room. A recent study revealed that drivers interacting with a kiosk from their cars were straining to reach the camera during the most difficult part of their interaction—scanning a barcode.

In a study of its mobile app, Wells Fargo researchers watched participants re-enact common banking scenarios. But when users were asked to find the nearest ATM, in almost all cases, they used Google Maps instead of the company’s product. It turned out that in the banking app’s first release, the ATM locator required completion of eight distinct steps before a user could know directions to the nearest machine. The product team quickly addressed the issue and streamlined the ATM locator experience.5

Eliminate Incorrect Assumptions

Research can counteract erroneous assumptions about how users will behave. In a Wells Fargo study, the prevailing idea that “mobile apps are for millennials” was turned on its head. Instead, researchers found that financial complexity was more of a driving force for mobile adoption than traditional factors such as age and comfort with technology. Some of the older participants were the most advanced mobile bankers because they managed their own businesses, retirement accounts, and mortgages, while college students often only had a single account.

Do Not Let Your Biases Influence the Design

Bill Selman, Lead User Researcher at Firefox, writes that user research is needed to help technologists uncover user insights and attitudes, which may differ drastically from their own. In other words, to guard against homophily. Homophily is the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with others based on similarities rather than differences. "Those of us who work in technology form our own homophilic bubble. We share similar experiences, information, beliefs, and processes not just on how to design and build products and services, but also in how many of us use those products and services. These beliefs and behaviors become reinforced through the conversations we have with colleagues, the news we read in our press daily, and the conferences we attend to learn from others within our industry. The most insidious part of this homophilic bubble is how natural and self-evident the beliefs, knowledge, and behaviors generated within it appear to be."6

Think Out of Your Box

Pain points as identified by users may overlook underlying issues. For example, trouble printing or scanning a bar code might be best avoided by passing print altogether. Can't read the fine print? Users may clamor for larger type sizes, but adding white space around the text might prove to be a more effective solution. User research helps you learn about and create solutions for problems that exist outside the limitations of your system.

Shrinking Time, Cutting Cost

By addressing usability problems early on, enterprises can eliminate costlier and more time-consuming rework in the development phase. It has been estimated that adding user involvement to the development process can reduce project time by 33 to 50 percent.7 Conducting user research before design starts can prevent wrong-headed ideas from consuming time during the design and development cycles, while letting designers know what is truly important to your users.

Placing User Experience at the Heart of Business

Google, Apple, Airbnb, Uber, Intuit, and numerous other leaders of the digital revolution employ user researchers. And for good reasons—user research can help identify customer needs and expectations, increase user empathy, uncover the actual issues underlying customer pain points, and spawn valuable inspirations for new products. However, to truly effect change in a product’s design, researchers may need to adopt urgency when sharing research findings with the enterprise

At Coforge, we put UX research to work in two ways—discovering new ideas that will help create next-generation products or services, and delivering more value by tailoring research activities to your needs and budget, so you can learn more about your users’ behavior and build the right product. Our research activities can serve as a springboard to your digital operating model (DOM), and most importantly, make your customers’ lives a little easier.

About the Author

Mark Richman is Coforge Manager of User Experience. As a specialist in usability-informed design, he synthesizes user research, current standards, business and user needs, and usability techniques to create effective and enjoyable products and experiences. He specializes in making complex tasks simple and intuitive.

References ement-figures-as-way-to-stand-out perience-is-the-future-of-marketing/ r-research/

Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), (2005)

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