The Ultimate UX Research Question Answered

A voting ballot in a polling booth.

There’s one question above all others that needs to be asked during any user research session -- and it’s one that rarely, if ever, does. It’s the one question that, depending on the answer, can dramatically impact the success or failure of a project. And, despite having the ultimate influence on user research, it’s a question that doesn’t even involve your users.

That question? “Are you willing to listen to the answers?”

That’s listen -- not just hear. That means are you willing to embrace what’s being told and use it to your advantage to ensure that you’re focusing on the end user. The honest answer to that question will impact not only the efficacy of the research efforts that you’re undertaking, but also how that information transitions to the product development, and, ultimately, the satisfaction of your user group.

I’d love to say that every user research engagement goes swimmingly and we all skip through the Utopian fields of knowledge, hand-in-hand, with an open and pure mind. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.

I was reminded of this recently hearing Bob Dylan’s song “Gotta Serve Somebody.” In it he lists off a bunch of different social scenarios, before conceding that, “it may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” 

That’s a scenario we see all the time in UX. Ideally, user research is focused on the end user almost exclusively. Yes, there are internal audiences and needs, but they should align with the external audience’s primary goals, language patterns, and mental models.

That’s the Utopian version. The reality is often different.

Internal silos, “loudest-voice-in-the-room” influence, and personal agendas are just a few of the things that can negatively impact user research. And there are so many ways that user research can be manipulated to get you where you want to go -- as opposed to where your customers actually want to go -- that it’s important to be aware of the power that you possess.

Whether it is subtly leading questions during user testing, a near-dogmatic adherence to internally held structures and beliefs, or explaining away user behaviours and patterns without validation, user research is only as strong as its inherent integrity. Once that’s compromised, it’s very hard to stop that train from derailing.

Unfortunately, the reality of it all is that sometimes you have no choice. Key stakeholders may say they want to embrace user research, but when the results come back and aren’t in alignment with their beliefs, that experience can be jarring. And, like most people, when their long-held assumptions are challenged, the initial reaction can be to be defensive, or to reject the ideas as flawed.

And it’s not always senior management that’s not on board. Sometimes you have the support of the seniors, but it’s the people at the project level who have their own ideas and designs on a project -- evidence be damned -- and you have to deal with that.

So how do you solve these problems? You can only do so much and, really, the only things that you can control are your integrity and the integrity of your process. As a UX researcher, you can make recommendations and present findings based on data -- but you’re beholden to the integrity of that data and the willingness of the client to embrace those recommendations. Both of those can be fluid, depending upon external influence and internal tolerances.

Ultimately, we’re in the business of customer service. We’re providing a service to our customers and want them to be happy. Nowhere does it state that a client has to agree with everything we do. And, really, they shouldn’t -- there’s a great push-and-pull, sharing of knowledge and expertise that needs to be embraced to make the whole greater than the sum of its individual parts. You can go against findings and evidence from testing, but then you increase the risk to the project's success. If you're willing to assume that risk, that always your prerogative. 

As a project leader working with a UX vendor, who are you going to serve? Really, there’s no right or wrong answer, honestly. The “better” answer is always going to be supporting user research, but the reality of the situation is that there are often many egos, fiefdoms, and competing internal priorities that get in the way. Acknowledging those -- and, in some cases, embracing them up front, allows everyone to be on the same page with research efforts and smoothes the process.

Simply put, if I know that user research is only intended to “inform” the process, but that we’re beholden to an internal audience’s needs or desires, then that clarifies the rules of engagement. It reduces friction by providing us the lens through which user research efforts must be viewed.

The challenge comes when lip service is paid to embracing user research, but all subsequent actions are designed to compromise or undermine those activities in an effort to make the data prove a theory, as opposed to allowing the data to stand on its own.

We ask our participants to be honest through the process. But to ensure success, all parties -- both internal and external -- have to be able to commit to that same level of brutal honesty. In the end it saves time and effort, and reduces friction and frustration. Part of that honesty is answering who are you really going to serve? Your external clients or your internal audiences?

Gotta Serve Somebody is off the album Slow Train Coming. Understanding, up front, who you’re serving helps prevent that UX train from going off the rails.

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Questions Answered

How do I deal with competing priorities in UX research?

Should I focus on internal or external user research?

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