While user experience (UX) research is gaining in popularity, there are still many UX design teams who struggle to include research with users in their process. Certain perceptions about the value and validity of doing UX research can make it hard to convince organizations to buy into the importance of including it. Let’s review some key misconceptions and the reality behind them.

Myth 1: It’s too expensive and time consuming

Time and budget are often the go-to excuses for not doing any research with users throughout a project. There is a myth that UX research is very expensive. The truth is, as with many things, there are ways to adjust the scope of research to fit a wide range of budgets and timelines. Quick rounds of user interviews or contextual research can be timeboxed within the process. Usability pioneer Jakob Nielsen has long been an advocate of “discount usability,” ways of flexibly reducing the cost of conducting usability tests. Low-fidelity prototypes like paper prototypes or clickable wireframes can be used effectively to do quick rounds of testing without needing to spend time polishing the artifacts.

There are also quick and dirty approaches to recruiting, incentives, and tools used that can make UX research very affordable and speedy. For example, friends and family recruiting through social networks can keep costs low, and using gift cards to coffee shops or company swag can reduce participant incentive costs. There are also many online platforms that enable more specific recruiting, while eliminating professional recruiting company fees. Finally, many online usability testing platforms make remote testing an affordable option.

Reality: There are ways to fit UX research into a range of budgets or resource conditions, and not doing research may cost you in the long term.

Myth 2: We can just do a survey

Surveys are frequently seen as a low investment, low risk approach to research, but the reality is that getting good data from a survey requires high skill. Image by Kaspars Grinvalds.

As design research expert Erika Hall writes so eloquently, “Surveys are the most dangerous research tool  —  misunderstood and misused.” They can seem deceptively easy to administer at scale, and this accessibility can be good. However, getting quality data back from a survey requires a lot of skill in how the survey is designed and constructed.

Surveys rely heavily on people self reporting, and also often constrain answers to limited choices. Surveys don’t allow researchers to observe behavior, and so are best used to explore things like large-scale customer demographics. The method often doesn’t allow researchers to dig deep into why something might be happening — so, if used, it can be most effective when paired with a qualitative method of research, like interviewing, that allows for a deeper dive.

Reality: Surveys often don’t have a good ROI in terms of the quality and usefulness of the data.

Myth 3: We can’t get anything worthwhile from talking to such a small number of people

For organizations that skew heavily toward valuing statistically significant market segmentation or surveying, or perhaps analytics data, the validity and worth of qualitative research with smaller sample sizes is sometimes questioned. There can be an attitude that a quantitative research approach is better than a qualitative one (or, indeed, sometimes the opposite).

In reality, the most effective UX research approaches allow for triangulation across multiple methods. The different data types can tell us different things, and complement each other nicely. Qualitative methods can help us understand the “why” behind human behavior, and dive deep into underlying customer needs and desires, even at smaller sample sizes. The researcher’s job is to identify insights and patterns. Nielsen Norman suggests that, for usability testing, testing with five users will find up to 85 percent of the issues.

Reality: Qualitative methods and usability testing can reveal important patterns at small sample sizes.

Myth 4: Customers don’t know what they want anyway

The (potentially misattributed) Henry Ford quote, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” gets pulled out a lot as justification for not talking to users. The idea that customers don’t know what they want may have some truth to it. However, doing UX research is not only about understanding what customers want, it’s about diving deep into their needs, behaviors, and experiences.

Customers are experts in their own lived experiences and mental models, and will demonstrate surprising ways of using your products and services. Being able to understand the customer perspective will enable teams to build experiences that are more aligned to where the customer is at, and truly provide value and delight. The researchers job is to sift through qualitative data to uncover people’s underlying needs in what they share. In the faster horses case, for example, people’s underlying need is to get from A to B quickly and reliably.

Reality: Users are experts in their own lived experiences and mental models, and the researcher’s job is to uncover their needs and behaviors to inform the design process.

Myth 5: Doing testing with users at the end of the build will be sufficient

One of the more common forms of UX research is to conduct evaluative testing, which entails testing with users once a product or service has been built. This is sometimes seen as the last “check in the box” in a design-and-build process. While this is certainly valuable, and better than doing no research at all, there is sometimes a missed opportunity to incorporate UX research earlier in the process.

Generative research is about exploring a problem space and generating possible problem framing or solutions. Doing upfront generative research can increase the chances that a team is approaching a customer need from the right perspective before proceeding to ideation and developing solutions.

Reality: Incorporating different types of research throughout the process will lead to the best results for customers and the business.

Paper prototyping can be one low-fi and cheap way of getting design work in front of users earlier in the process. Image by rh2010.

Start small and go from there

Getting people to buy into UX research takes time and patience. It’s important to be diplomatic in how you talk to colleagues and bosses, always focusing on the potential value of UX research. For many teams, starting with small ways of incorporating research is the most effective way to get off the ground in building a culture of research with users.