Hipertext.net, Yearbook, issue 11, May 2013

User studies






Research with users 

By Yusef Hassan Montero www.yusef.es 


"Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design"
Charles Eames


There is no doubt that offering a fully satisfying user experience is a key to the success and acceptance of any product or service. In the first place, this experience will rely on the ability of the product or service to satisfy the needs or wishes of the users, that is to say, it will rely on its use value. But also, and inseparably, on how easily and naturally it might be used and the user might benefit from it.

The concept of research with users draws together a wide set of processes and techniques, precisely aimed at identifying what needs must the product or service satisfy, as well as understanding how people interpret it and use it. Thus, its final goal is to reduce the uncertainty inherent to the complex design process, by providing information that facilitates the taking of good design decisions.

Sometimes, the real value of research with users for design is minimized or misunderstood, maybe because of misconceptions regarding what it is or in which contexts it might be particularly useful.

One of the most common misunderstandings is considering that user-centered design is leaded by the users. The philosophy of user-centered design does not delegate the responsibility of solving the design problem to the user, and much less that of having the necessary vision to devise the product or service.

Unlike what often has been simplified, research with users is not only about asking users, but about identifying their needs -mostly underlying so that they cannot be verbalized or even imagined- and to check out their interactive behaviour through observation, interpretation and expert analysis. This does not mean that one should not listen to the users, but they are not in charge of devising the solution to the design problem.

Some misunderstandings also arise regarding certain research methods such as tests with users. It is true that in laboratory tests, it is impossible that the user does not feel observed and the imposition of certain tasks is not very natural, so that it conditions his or her interactive behaviour. But his or her sensory or motor reactions, as well as his or her most immediate decisions, will not be significantly influenced, which means they provide high value information.

Besides, we must not forget that this method is particularly suitable when the goal is more formative, that is, to detect usability problems in the product, than additive, that is, to determine how easy to use the product is. Of course this does not imply that every design decision must be evaluated with the users. Widely consolidated design principles and patterns can be applied to most interaction problems. However, when there is a more atypical interactive problem, or when any design change might also significantly affect the volume of business, the best option is to validate design hypotheses with user studies.

Despite the previous considerations, to minimize the value of research with users it is often argued that well-known companies explain the huge success of some of their products by defending Schrage's (2012) "do-it-yourself" design focus.

This focus or philosophy lies in creating a product that a particular person would actually want to have or use, or one best solving his or her own needs and wishes, so that special attention is paid to details and final quality. This is a perfectly valid focus wherein research with users is dispensable, since design is focused on oneself.

But this focus cannot become widespread as a universal solution, since it demands at least one indispensable condition: to be an archetypal user who represents a significant part of the product's potential or aspiring audience. And it is true that, in reality, there are few times when the user fits to that condition, since most of the times we are not the final user. Let us think, for example, about facing the design of a health information system. How could we undertake it successfully without having an in-depth knowledge of the needs of the targeted audience or the professional activities the system aims to cater to?

Lastly, Norman and Verganti (2012) claim that research with users, in the context of the iterative design process focused on the user, can only lead to incremental innovation but not to radical innovation.

Besides the fact that it would obviously be unfair to minimize the value of incremental innovation, this limitation should not be attributed to user-centered design as a philosophy or to research with users as a strategy, but probably to the methods and theoretical framework this kind of research is traditionally based on. These two elements might be the ones preventing the researcher from seeing beyond the needs and behaviours of a specific context and a specific time.

Naturally, we are not claiming that the only possible way of having a full user experience, that which bodes the success of the product or service, has to be the application of research techniques and processes with users. The only essential element to achieve this goal is the talent and creativity of the designers, and their ability to align with the business targets.

Moreover, without the necessary talent to translate the information about the users into design decisions, this information will be completely worthless. Connecting with what we said at the beginning, the truth is that research with users is the most powerful tool to understand the problem and validate hypotheses, but it does not provide with the solution to the problem.


Hassan Montero, Y.; Ortega Santamaría, S. (2009). Informe APEI sobre usabilidad. Gijón: Asociación Profesional de Especialistas en Información. Available at:http://www.nosolousabilidad.com/manual/index.htm

Norman, D.A.;  Verganti, R. (2012). Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research versus Technology and Meaning Change. Available at:http://jnd.org/dn.mss/Norman%20%26%20Verganti.%20Design%20Research%20%26%20Innovation-18%20Mar%202012.pdf

Schrage, M. (2012). Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become? Harvard Business Press Books.



Last updated 25-09-2013
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