The role of a user researcher on corporate IT projects is growing, and for a good reason. Understanding the needs of people who use your company’s products and services is critical to helping leadership formulate a successful and competitive business strategy, especially when starting a digital transformation initiative.
However, user research is often overlooked and underfunded. Part of the reason for this is a lack of awareness of the relationship between the perceived investment in research and return on investment. It’s not uncommon for companies to lead with technical solutions instead of taking the time to understand user perceptions and behaviors. This is one of the reasons many organizations purchase off-the-shelf solutions only to find out later that their product usability is dismal and users are unhappy. Additionally, confirmation bias plays a role in a company’s culture as individual project contributors play the role of subject matter expert at the expense of talking to actual end-users.
Use research drives revenue growth and customer satisfaction in numerous ways. By understanding customer needs, you can design products that better align with them, which helps improve customer perceptions of your brand. Additionally, understanding user needs reduces rework during development because designs are based on direct user feedback, which can be validated by performing usability testing early in the lifecycle. These factors lead to increased conversion rates, reduced costs from development and call center support, and overall happier customers. Satisfied customers lead to repeat business and stronger loyalties.
Human-centered design (HCD) is often employed as a framework for IT efforts because it takes an empathic approach toward understanding user needs, which requires observation, testing, and inquiry to understand user perceptions, views, and pain-points. Researchers have many capabilities and techniques at their disposal to gather both quantitative and qualitative feedback from users to better understand their motivations and needs. However, on many projects, these skills are lacking or ineffectively utilized.
In many organizations, user research falls under the purview of user experience (UX) design. While it is true that some UX designers have research capabilities, the discipline in itself has its own processes, techniques, and collective knowledge. For example, researchers are trained to remove bias to uncover authentic problems and pain-points users are having. This differentiator can translate to valuable improvements and solutions for companies and products while minimizing internal influence. If performed poorly, however, the risk of developing products that misalign with user needs grows exponentially. This is especially true as project team members put their slant on needs and features in the absence of sound user research. To combat this, many companies hire outside research firms to perform neutral audits to validate their understanding of user needs and perceptions.
To incorporate research into your project, you must allocate time for it early in the development cycle. Many project teams struggle to layer in user research as development occurs because of the amount of time and investment it takes to do formal research and a lack of understanding of its benefits. Leading with technical solutions before understanding user needs is one of the biggest mistakes we see project teams make. However, not all projects are created equally. Each project differs in its engineering complexity and the institutional knowledge required to be effective.
On complex initiatives with ample subject matter and engineering expertise, it can be challenging to incorporate research in a timely and meaningful way. In many cases, researchers have a high orientation cost to get up to speed to help drive solutions. In these cases, it may be essential to embed researchers in the development and engineering team to understand the current state and plan accordingly while minimizing disruption. This is less of an issue on consumer-facing or new applications, where understanding user needs is more accessible and expected. However, it is easy for project owners to circumvent proper user research by way of proxy on complex initiatives. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to mistake simple project stakeholder interviews for true user research with people who consume or utilize the product or service.
The value of user research is undeniable; it’s how it gets applied that is sometimes the challenge for project teams. More weight is often put on internal collective knowledge instead of understanding future-state needs based on direct user feedback. In cases such as these, good researchers do their best to isolate areas of influence where user needs can be incorporated and applied. The critical takeaway is to integrate research where and when possible and never discount it. As the proverbial saying goes, two heads are better than one. In the domain of user research, some research is better than none.