Wrapping Up The Great Debate on Up-front User Research

Wrapping Up The Great Debate on Up-front User Research

Great UX Debate #2 "Upfront user research —Critical or not?"

Two brave and whippet-smart women recently put up their hands to take each other on in the second of our UX debates, that “Up-front user research is a crucial part of the UX process”.

Here’s how it went down.

Regular visitors to our forums will know that a few weeks ago two brave and whippet-smart women (I do love calling them that) put up their hands to take each other on in the second of our great UX debates. The ladies in question are both veterans in the field and they didn’t let us down. The arguments were strong and they kept things interesting with a few feisty digs.

The Topic 

Up-front user research is a crucial part of the UX process.

The Contenders

Taking the affirmative position was Angela Schmeidel Randall, the founder of Normal Modes, a Texas-based user experience company. Angela’s superpower is working on experiences with large, mission critical datasets with complex rules. She speaks about cross-platform UX and the intersection of customer experience and user experience. Clients include Nike, Sandia National Laboratories, Avanade, Netflix, and Hearst.

Taking the negative position was Donna Spencer, who runs Maadmob, an Australian freelance agency specialising in design strategy, user experience design and training. She recently read that Myers-Briggs ENTP types are great devils-advocates, for whom a good argument is more important than the actual content of the argument. That explained a lot.

The Lowdown (as interpreted by me)

As the affirmative team (of one), Angela kicked things off in fine fashion, outlining the standard arguments against user-testing and then introducing a number of key counter arguments. In a brief summary of those points, Angela claims that as UX designers we tend to underestimate the ROI of user research (if we actually calculate it at all); we overestimate our knowledge of users, we overestimate our own skill and we underestimate the cost of fixing problems later in the project. Put like that, it sounds like a recipe for disaster. Concluding with a real life example, Angela leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths to the tune of thirty million dollars. Nice touch – no one likes a hit to the wallet.

In her own words, Donna comes back “in true debating style” and points out that Angela is in fact arguing the wrong point. She states that she is not arguing that user research is not crucial, but that it doesn’t need to be done ‘up-front’, which is the point of this debate. She is indeed correct and goes on to point out that users have trouble articulating their thoughts at the best of times, so it’s far more effective to begin a design so that you have something to demonstrate at the time of testing. In Donna’s words, people are great at reacting to what they see, imagining how they may use it, and explaining why it won’t work for them. 

Too true, I thought. And then I read on and Angela came out fighting.

She breaks down Donna’s argument into two parts, and states firstly that for a new design, users are often unable to articulate their needs, and secondly that for redesigns, designers often already have an intimate understanding of the users’ needs either through informal methods (like analytics) or through day-to-day communication. She then delivers a cutting blow by stating;

“What it is about a redesign in her argument that suddenly endows users with the ability to articulate their needs escapes me…”

Good point, I thought, as is her next one, which suggests that when user research is completed later in the project, UX designers are often already married to their vision of how users should complete a task, meaning that their subsequent efforts focus on making a square peg fit through the round hole they’ve created. I know this problem all too well. She solidifies her argument by reminding us that the further into a project the testing takes place, the more experience the users already have with it. While I don’t agree that this is always the case, there are times when it is and those shouldn’t be discounted.

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Donna, no shrinking violet herself, takes the stage and claims that;

“Angela has attempted the traditional debating method of putting words in her opponent’s mouth.” 

In a clever twist, Donna appeals to our sense of pride as designers, by reminding us that a key skill of any good designer is the ability to be able throw a design away and start again if necessary. She goes on to say that good designers are good listeners, don’t get married to a design, are good at creating multiple approaches and comfortable iterating as they learn more. Nicely done, Donna, nicely done.

So to encapsulate the two arguments into one sentence each, Angela claims that the further into a project that user-testing takes place, the more experience the user already has with the design, and the harder it is for the designer to step away from the work that has already been done.

Donna’s counter argument is that because users cannot always articulate their needs, and because designers usually know something about the product before beginning the design, it can be far more effective to create an initial draft design and use ongoing research to evolve that design rather than wasting time at the beginning with up-front user research.

So there you have it folks. A spirited argument between two very talented and articulate women. You don’t get a better coffee break read than that! But it doesn’t end there. At UX Mastery we’re all a bit competitive, and that means that we don’t hold a competition (or a debate) without declaring a winner. For that, we need your help. You’ve heard both sides and you must have a favourite. Here is your chance to tell us who that is by voting in our poll (which will remain open for one week).

If you have any ideas for future debate topics, or if you’d like to put your hand up to jump in the ring, let us know in the comments and we’ll make it happen.

Written by
Sarah Hawk
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