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Getting lost in detail - balancing research and intuition

by Ernez Dhondy

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When I started out in UX the only sort of research I got to do was in a usability lab.

I spent countless hours observing and analyzing the interactions between man and machine. It was tedious, repetitive work, but it gave me an opportunity to talk to real people, which felt both honest and useful. It helped me understand that without research there can be no product (well not one that worked anyway).

Eight years on the landscape has changed dramatically.

New tools have provided us with an abundance of research, data and insights. All of which used to take months of tracking, measuring, mining and then trawling through reports to make sense of.

We now have whole communities of willing research participants ready to provide us feedback on any question or any concept at the drop of a hat.

We’ve even fallen in love with complex research techniques such as ethnography and the insight into a person’s behavior and ecology this has been able to provide.

Nowadays we call ourselves designer researchers, design anthropologists and other specialised titles. We back this up by not only having the skills to execute, but having access a virtual cavalcade of human data that can help convince everyone how right we are.

But the problem with a glut (of any kind) is that we can get overwhelmed by the level of information. We can fail to see the forest for the trees and we can begin to doubt our findings as well as ourselves. We can get lost in a sea of post-it notes, analytics data, interview transcripts and pictures of smiling faces plastered on office walls. Inevitably this can be a data overload and cause doubt and analysis paralysis – resulting in the worst outcome of all, indecision.

And so we enter an endless feedback loop where new ideas are tested, reported and evaluated only to be no closer to a decision than they were to start off with. In this moment of self-doubt and indecision we decide to do “more research”.

I know this is true because I have been there myself. I’m guilty of deferring and even outsource the decision making process to the user. This is symptomatic of the brand of UX we read and hear about on a daily basis and I fear that UX has begun to rely too heavily on the research and not our ability to interpret it and utilise it.

In our effort to secure time and resources to actually conduct research in our design process, perhaps we’re failing to have an honest conversation about what research is capable of doing and more importantly what is it not. Research is only ever capable of guiding the decision making process, not making the actual decisions.

Why?

Because our user is simply not equipped to make decisions for us. They are not students of design, they aren’t entirely cognoscente of the effect a well-designed product, an impeccably executed service and or well executed brand has upon their decision making process.

To other designer this must sound like sacrilege. After all, without user research there is no product, right?

I did say that at the start of this article and I do truly believe that.

What I have a problem with is our over reliance on research which can undermine the opinion of a designer. I am far more interested in my team of designer’s ability to interpret and problem solve with the aid of research. I‘m not interested in them regurgitating research findings verbatim, avoiding giving me an interpretation of what those findings mean and when we are going to do the opposite of what those findings tell us. If you don’t agree just remember that famous Henry Ford quote “if I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. People don’t know what they don’t know yet, and it takes experts and forward thinkers to lead the drive for the user, not at the instruction of the user.

So research need to be complimented by a designer’s intuition. Intuition is probably the most powerful tools a designer has. Intuition is that feeling you get when you know your right, when you decide to dig you heels in and make the decision to do the opposite of what everything else tells you to do. If it sounds familiar it because I can guarantee you, we have all experienced it.

Gut reaction or intuition is something hard-wired into everyone one of us. A construct as unique as our DNA because intuition isn’t an arbitrary thought driven by emotion. On the contrary, it’s your minds ability to draw upon the vast number of experiences and the immense knowledge gathered over our lifetime and equip us to make a decision at break neck pace.

It doesn’t always produce the right result, it can result in biases and ego driven decisions - but in my experience so does research. Just ask the countless number of insight-driven startups that fail on a daily basis, or the countless number of products that don’t meet expectations despite being subjected to hours and hours of usability testing. Good design has many working parts, and research is only one part of a very large, very complex puzzle.

You need to strike the right balance between all these parts to achieve good design, so that when you ask the user what they think it feeds into and adapts to what you know.

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