The Real Value of Original Research | May 17, 2017

User-centred designers typically start a new project with a research phase. This allows them to understand the product or service through the eyes of their customers, explore the limits of the problem space, and come up with recommendations that feel at least partially informed. All useful things from a design perspective.

Sometimes organisations baulk at the idea of doing research, causing the design team to launch into their typical spiel about the value of their approach. In my experience, these objections are rarely about the value of research itself, but more around whether original research is necessary on this occasion.

All organisations of a certain size carry out research as a matter of course. They probably have a marketing department segmenting customers, understanding customer sentiment, and testing new propositions through surveys and focus groups. They also have an analytics team tracking user behaviour, testing the effectiveness of campaigns, and pinpointing areas for improvement. In preparation for this project, the product managers and BAs almost certainly did their own research to help build the business case. They probably have more information than they know what to do with.

Most organisations feel they have a pretty good handle on what’s going on inside their company; they just need you to fix it. They claim there’s no need to do more research. Instead, they will provide you with access to their analytics package, the results of the user testing report they commissioned nine months ago, and copies of their marketing personas. This, combined with a briefing meeting should be enough to get your team up to speed.

On the surface this makes sense. After all, why pay for original research if you already have the answers you need? Better to save the money and spend it coming up with a solution, especially when resources are scarce.

This attitude is completely understandable, but it hides an unusual and counterintuitive truth about the value of design research. Design research is rarely about the acquisition of new knowledge and information. Instead, the real value of design research comes from the process of gathering and analysing the results. It’s this analysis phase where the data gets processed, information gets turned into knowledge, and understanding becomes tacit.

Existing research will have been gathered to answer general business questions, so it won’t necessarily provide the insights the design team need. Instead, design research is done with a specific product or service improvement in mind; it adds nuance to the problem at hand, and allows the designer to weigh up different options and understand how the various solutions may play out.

Knowledge gained from original research is far more impactful than that gathered elsewhere. Remembering the conversation you had with a frustrated customer becomes part of the narrative, and the resulting insight becomes internalised. This is a very different experience from reading a data point in somebody else’s report, which can easily be downplayed or forgotten.

In psychology this phenomenon is known as embodied cognition—the idea that you think through problems using your whole self, rather than just your mind. This means you learn more by experiencing something in person, than you do by reading about it in a book or report.

For most designers, original research isn’t about gathering facts and data. Instead, it’s the process they use to understand the task at hand. Like warming up before the big race, research allows you to engage body and mind, get the creative muscles working, and be flexible and limber enough to tackle the challenge ahead. It isn’t something you can effectively outsource to your coach or team captain. It’s a vital part of the pre-race process.

This was originally posted on UXMas.

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