First things first: Yes, I know you might not like the title of this article. Chill, just read it and try not to take it as a personal attack. I love you, deeply.
Up-front User Research is a form of Product Procrastination. It’s busy-work, it’s a way to avoid making hard decisions. It delays the need to make something tangible.
I know I shouldn’t be saying this because it’s kind of sacrilege in the design community. I also shouldn’t be saying it because I know a lot of companies still make a lot of money selling a user research phase to companies who don’t know better. I know this because we used to do it at AJ&Smart. It was part of our UX/Product Design package: 2–4 weeks of up-front user research. We interviewed people, we created personas, we made empathy maps… It’s not that we were trying to milk our clients of as much money as possible, we just didn’t know better, this was the design process! I mean look at every design process diagram ever…
It took a while, but eventually we started to notice a worrying pattern: We would do the pre-research for a specific product or service, do the interviews, create the personas, create the documentation then as soon as we got down designing and testing the actual product, we figured out that even though it was nice to “have the user in mind” when designing, the useful data came from the first user tests, not the research. In fact, more often than not, the personas and other documentation just started gathering dust while the rest of the process continued.
At about the same time that we were mounting concerns about this wasteful process, Jake Knapp started writing about GV’s Design Sprint process. The focus is on getting to a tangible result ridiculously fast (4–5 days) and skips intensive up-front research in favour of immediately testing a high-fidelity (realistic) prototype. The idea really resonated with me as it matched the kind of real-life, practical results we were seeing, but I didn’t believe it until we actually ran through the process with a new client. We sold them 1 week instead of our typical 6–8 week package and started it completely cold. No research, no benchmarking, no brief. 5 days later, we were further along with this client’s product than we’d ever been in our 6–8 week package. The Design Sprint process exposed that our own design process was mostly filler!
It turns out that being able to put something tangible in the hands of your potential (or assumed) customer gives you infinitely more valuable data than just researching and documenting, then trying to build assumptions from that. Let me be clear: in both cases we are just making assumptions. We do not really know what our potential users will really respond to, what they will understand or what they’ll hate until we really see them using it. So whether we spend the first 4 weeks trying to learn what they like, how they behave and whether they’re a “mobile native” or not, OR just make assumptions then test them 4 days later, we’re still only seeing the really valuable, usable data once they use the product (or the very realistic prototype of it).
And yes, there are cases where up-front research makes a lot of sense, especially if it’s not clear what sort of problem exactly needs to be solved (i’m thinking here of improving the Emergency Room of a hospital for example). For the most part, though, I recommend ditching the time consuming, wasteful up-front research in favour of tangible results.