Put User Research Knowledge Where It Belongs

Jim Ross / Friday, January 6, 2017

Imagine conducting extensive user research. You reveal extremely interesting information and present it to your client and the project team. They seem intrigued and appreciate learning about the users and their needs. You feel that you’ve done a good job and that this knowledge is going to make a big difference in their project. However, you find months later that your report sits on a shelf, your presentation sits in a project folder on the server, the personas lie under a pile of other documents on people’s shelves, and the information you conveyed has faded from the minds of the meeting attendees.

How did this happen? Why does user research information sometimes go unused, and how can we prevent this from happening? Of course, the easy answer may be that the research was poorly planned, poorly conducted, or the findings were poorly presented. But why does even good research get forgotten? Let’s look at the answers to that question.

Knowledge inscribed on building 
Image courtesy of Marcin Wichary by Creative Commons license

User Research Provides Knowledge and Understanding

User research provides valuable information about the users, their tasks, the tools they use, and their environment, but that information doesn’t always translate directly into concrete recommendations or requirements. Unlike usability testing, which finds problems and provides specific recommendations, user research provides knowledge and understanding, which is important, but doesn’t always point to immediate design directions.

This understanding of the users and their needs becomes valuable when making design decisions. As you decide how a particular feature or interaction should work, you pull upon the information that you learned during user research to make the right decisions.

Research Knowledge Is Needed to Make Design Decisions

For user research to be successful, the knowledge and understanding of the users has to reside in the minds of the people who need that information the most – the designers. Yes, it’s good for everyone to hear about the user research findings, but the people who most need to absorb the information are those who need to make direct design decisions based on that information.

Reading a report or attending a presentation provides information, but it doesn’t always stick in people’s minds. The findings are distilled down to a summary, which is fine for most of the audience, but it’s not enough to deeply internalize the information. To truly understand the users and their needs, designers need to attend or to conduct the research themselves. Either the designer should be a generalist researcher and designer, or the designers should attend and observe the research sessions, led by a researcher specialist.

Two silos 
Image courtesy of Rutkowski Photography by Creative Commons license

Siloed Research and Design Isn’t User-Centered

Perhaps the worst arrangement is when research and design are siloed activities performed by different specialists. A researcher conducts the user research alone and presents the findings to the project team. The designer then conducts the design alone, using whatever is remembered from the user research presentation. In this model, the person with the deepest understanding of the users, the researcher, is not involved in the design.

Where Does User Research Knowledge Belong?

User research knowledge belongs in the minds of everyone involved in a project, but it’s most important for that information to be deeply engrained in the minds of those making decisions. That’s primarily the designer. Involve designers to get the best value out of user research.