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

Asking users for advice

Research is not about asking users what they want.


If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

– Henry Ford

This is one of the most cited quotes on innovation and user involvement, associated with Henry Ford. It is often used to dismiss user research – but that is a misunderstanding of its point.

Asking users “why”, and observing how they do things, is essential for user-centered design. Asking users what they want is unhelpful; it’s akin to asking for trouble.

Users are experts on their tasks, workflows, problems, and wishes. This is their area of expertise. They know where things are overly complex for them, where they struggle, where their workflow is broken. And they can even show it to you.

They might have suggestions on how to fix obstacles they encounter, or how to integrate their workarounds into existing solutions. But this feedback is based on their experiences and workflow. They address their own problems, which is fine. It’s not their job to understand or solve the larger issues. That’s your job.

Observing and talking to users helps you find problems and generate solution ideas. However, users can’t tell you what the overall solution should be.

Asking users for their ideal solution can seem like granting them a wish. They might expect it now to be built and be disappointed if it isn’t.

There is value in research – observe users’ behavior to identify their actual needs. Use it to come up with solutions. Ask them what they would like to change, not how. Don’t rely on your users to provide you with a solution.

Translating user feedback into a concept, is your area of expertise, and it’s a job you need to do yourself.

UX Research is no magic 8 ball

Research can only offer insights, not definitive solutions.

There is a common misconception about the role of research in the UX design community. People hope that research (the more the better) will solve their design problem.

However, research doesn’t provide direct answers to design problems, nor does it magically reveal a solution. Instead, research can only provide insights as “food for thought”.

The primary goal of research is to understand users’ mindsets, workflows, and challenges. You want to see what users do, understand why they do it, and get their feedback. These insights are the raw material for your ideation.

However, there’s a limit. At some point, further research won’t bring you closer to an answer. You might think: “I still have so many questions.” — this feeling is normal. Research cannot answer all your questions.

It is your job to collect and combine these insights and use them to come up with a viable solution. This involves analyzing data, brainstorming, formulating assumptions, and creating prototypes. Research cannot replace the ideation process. There will always be ambiguity when coming up with solutions — embrace it.

Research alone won’t hand you an answer on a silver platter. While it lays the groundwork for ideation, you have to come up with solution ideas on your own. To address unanswered questions, turn to ideation to explore possible solutions.

During ideation you will come up with solution ideas. Map them out, brainstorm, document your assumptions, create prototypes, and validate them. This iterative process helps in refining the solution. You need to actively “work towards” the solution.

While research provides the foundation for ideation work, it’s your job to find the right solution. Don’t try to outsource ideation work to research.