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27 January, 2011 / Ash

Without foundational research, can we claim to be designing for the user experience?

Lady with a nose growing like Pinocchio

Can we truthfully say we're designing for the user experience?

My thesis is simple: without truly understanding users, we can’t manage their experience. Yet this is what many of us in the user experience field claim to be doing.

User research can be broken into four rough categories:

  1. Foundational research: getting to know the users’ mental models so we can understand their needs and discover new product or service opportunities.
  2. Design research: once we’ve decided on a product or service that will be mutually beneficial to the organisation and the user, we can focus the research on how they currently understand and achieve these goals.
  3. Formative usability evaluation: Once we understand how they achieve their goals, we can start explore ideas: prototyping concepts, and testing them with users.
  4. Summative usability evaluation: Once a solution has been settled on, it can be tested to set baseline metrics. This allows us to evaluate the next iteration of the product or service – providing meaningful feedback that allows us to improve our designs.

Foundational research should be the first step in designing for the user experience. The goal is to gain a deep understanding of our intended users, including their:

  • Mental models – Personal concepts of how things work in the world: constructs which are often different from how things really work.
  • Motivations – The reasons people behave the way they do.
  • Goals – Objectives driven by motivations.
  • Tasks – Things people need to do to achieve their goals.

We can then distill this information into personas, user stories, goals and primary tasks.

Foundational research provides a deep understanding of the target group, and is the most effective way to discover strategic business opportunities.

Unfortunately, foundational research is usually missing in the product/service development lifecycle. There are a number of reasons for this that I’ll explore in a later post.

We all claim to be designing for the User Experience, but can we really do that if we don’t understand the user in the first place?

Further reading

How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market
by Gerald Zaltman

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

The Persona Lifecycle: Keeping People in Mind Throughout Product Design (Interactive Technologies)
by John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin

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