Start with Research?

Let’s be mindful about the place and role of user research.

Back in 2011, Don Norman published an article on user research that generated strong pushback. There, he questioned the conventional UX design process in which research is always the first step before creating a concept. “Start with Research“ is the mantra that young UX designers often enter the workforce with. But does research always come first outside academia?

The reality of UX practice suggests otherwise. Activities such as research and testing are often pushed aside for production work. In the real world, creating solutions often takes precedence over activities aimed at understanding and learning. This is a major cause of frustration and lamentation by UX designers.

Instead of waiting for the perfect project, we as UX designers need to adjust our ideal process to match the real world. We must accept that there might not always be enough time to do upfront research. But this does not mean that we have to give up on it. We need to rethink our process to reflect reality.

In most projects, you won’t start from scratch. Review the existing solution. Look for problems, shortcomings, and obstacles. Then create an initial concept. Combine your input with that of others. Be mindful of the facts and assumptions that guide your design. Afterwards, test your concept with users. Remember, this is research, too. Doing so will help you get feedback, verify your assumptions, and collect valuable insights. After this, iterate your concept.

Using concepts to verify your assumptions is key. Small iterative steps involving concept refinement, research, and testing offer a leaner, more realistic approach to UX design.

Act first, research later? Well, not quite. Always be researching. Always be acting.

Don Norman