Friday, July 21, 2006

The User Research Precipice

Chris Fahey of Behavior is in the midst of an excellent series of posts at graphpaper.com exploring the nature of user research. A sampling from the first, where he explains that Behavior uses research to:
...try to know as much as possible about our clients, their customers, and their competitors, and we use this knowledge to inform our design process.

Many web designers and consultancies, however, feel it's not enough to use research to inform their design process. They go further: they try to make scientific user research the very foundation of their design process.

I use the word "try" because I suspect that the ideal of empirical, science-based user-centered design is something that we aspire to but never reach.
He goes on to say he suspects that "a lot of user research in this industry is a sham" that is sometimes seen as a way to avoid the true responsibility of "being expert designers who draw on deep experience and good instincts."

Them are fightin' words, but he's right. Valid, scientific research is costly, difficult and requires specialized skills and know-how that often make it prohibitive. Most importantly, no research results (no matter now scientific) can do the work of design.

I do a lot of user research and work very hard at it. At the same time, I take pains to ensure that my Clients understand its limitations—that we must take its results with at least several grains of salt. I probably go overboard, but I'd rather err on the side of caution.

For me, user research merely opens the door into the mind, hearts and experiences of end-users. It's then my responsibility to mull it all over, look at it from various angles, question it and ultimately add my experience, training and careful inferences. That's what makes UXCentrists so valuable.

My first Client taught me this nearly 20 years ago. When she offered what seemed a very high hourly rate for an easy project, I protested. "You don't understand, Dave," she replied. "We're not paying you for what you do; we're paying you for what you know."

If you need to rely on supposedly "scientific" user research for your design decisions, you're not yet a UXCentrist.

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