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29 December, 2010 / Ash

Intuition is the enemy of user research in UX

Know thy user.

Foundations of UX: Understanding the motivations, goals, tasks and context of users

It’s the mantra, and essential foundations of designing for a user experience (UX). To really know thy user, however, requires good research.

Even during the first site visit, interview, or contextual inquiry for a project, it’s tempting to start thinking about how to solve what appears to be an obvious problem. It’s not uncommon for User Experience practitioners to even start sketching out ideas while observing or conducting user research.

It’s how our minds naturally work. They:

Unfortunately, listening to your intuition (‘sketching out ideas’, or ‘jumping into solution mode’) is exactly how not to do research. Sure, you’ll come to conclusions that you’re certain are accurate – but it’s a good bet you’d be wrong.

Once you land on an idea, confirmation bias kicks in. You can’t help but look for evidence to confirm your assumptions – and that often means missing the real motivations, goals, tasks and issues.

Research isn’t about confirming assumptions

Research is about gathering data, analysing it, then forming conclusions. In fact, by definition research is:

the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

The scientific method can be applied to user research, just as it can be applied to any area of inquiry. Diligently gathering data from appropriate sources and analysing it carefully before coming to a conclusion is unnatural, uncomfortable, and completely necessary.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against intuition in UX. It’s necessary – but in the design stage. The user experience needs to be built on the solid foundations of good research, otherwise we might be wasting our time working on something completely unnecessary.

Stay focussed

When you’re gathering data, that should remain your focus. Stay out of ‘solutions mode’ until after the analysis. I’m always surprised that what I assumed to be the issues during the research phase the analysis reveals to be either non-issues, or minor issues compared to the ones I didn’t even notice.

Further reading

The A-Z of Social Research: A Dictionary of Key Social Science Research
by Robert Lee Miller & John Brewer

Business Anthropology
by Ann T Jordan

Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior
by Indi Young

Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches
by John W Creswell

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