UX Without User Research Is Not UX

Summary: UX teams are responsible for creating desirable experiences for users. Yet many organizations fail to include users in the development process. Without customer input, organizations risk creating interfaces that fail.

A website’s (or product’s) success depends on how users perceive it. Users assess the usefulness and ease of use of websites as they interact with them, forming their conclusions in seconds—sometimes milliseconds. 

Users base their decisions on whether to engage with a site based on questions like, “Does it have value to me? Is it easy to use? Am I delighted by the experience?” A good user experience leaves users answering ‘yes’ to all of these questions.

What is User Experience (UX)?

User Experience (UX) is a common term in the design community, but its definition is somewhat elusive, even amongst the UX community. The founders of Nielsen Norman Group, Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, defined UX as follows when they started the company in 1998:

The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use.” (See full UX definition)

In other words, UX teams and practitioners should strive to create products that users want and need, and design them in a way that is easy and joyful to use. User experience is concerned with everything that affects users and their interaction with the product.

Of course everyone wants to achieve an exemplary user experience. However, in practice, many organizations fall short of understanding what is required to make this happen. Although the field of user experience has gained popularity, bad design practices still exist in many organizations.

The User Experience is Everyone’s Responsibility

Having a UX department or UX title does not mean you are practicing UX. To achieve an exemplary user experience, coordination must be achieved among multiple disciplines, including product management, development, marketing, content, customer service, graphic design, and interaction design. In other words, everyone is responsible for looking out for the user. Take users’ needs into account during every step of the product lifecycle, by keeping your users at the center of your design efforts.

An orchestrated approach across many disciplines and stakeholders must be achieved to create a truly effective user experience and for the company to thrive. For a product to be truly successful, user-centered design must complement (or even drive) business objectives.

Bridging Business Goals with User Goals

Business priorities often lack the reality of user needs and decisions are made based on what we “think” is awesome rather than what is “truly” awesome. UX has strategic aspects that involve a deep understanding of the business, the users, and context in which they operate.

One of the biggest complaints from UX professionals is the lack of support from their organizations for UX-related activities, such as user research. The problem is amplified with a quick-release product-development framework such as Agile. Even worse, Agile development methods such as Scrum typically do not include UX designers as a core role, leaving many organizations to assume that UX is nonessential. This is a tragic mistake.

My latest interviews with Agile team members reveal that most teams are not performing user research on their concepts or designs. Respondents cited time constraints and lack of UX resources among the top reasons for this trend. Lack of user research could also happen with any product development model, including waterfall. Regardless of the method, organizations are shipping products without knowing their true value to the customer. It doesn’t matter how many products we release. If they’re junk, we’re simply shipping a lot more of it.

Paying UX Lip Service

Projects bring with them pressures of all magnitudes. We’ve all had to take shortcuts and rely on our own intuition. However, a user-centered process is something to be valued long term as it can help us achieve our goals.

We must actually support design decisions and business strategies based on real user data, not on our own experiences or preferences. When user-centered practices are executed, designers and researchers can find the design “sweet spot” where business needs and user needs overlap.

Empower UX designers and researchers to influence business priorities so your project does not fall into the “just ship it” trap. Also, structure the organization and cultivate its culture so that everyone—including executive management—feels connected to the goal of solving customer needs as a way of achieving business priorities.

There are many ways to evangelize usability. One is to let research participants do it for you. Find ways for naysayers to observe a usability study. After seeing the pain that your customers go through, it is difficult to challenge best practices or to continue designing blindly.

Do the Right Research, Correctly

Sometimes research is done with good intentions, but the methodology or execution is flawed. Far too frequently, companies contact Nielsen Norman Group in a panic to help them figure out why their new website is failing. When we ask them whether any usability activities were conducted prior to launch, the answer is often “yes!” So why is the redesign performing dismally? The main reason is poor methodology.

Common methodology mistakes:

Asking the wrong people for feedback: Your stakeholders and colleagues are not real users. They are not representative of your target audience. Involve the correct users in the design process, rather than having internal colleagues be participants, as they tend to be too close to the design to provide honest and accurate data.

Leading the witness: It’s natural for inexperienced facilitators to bias the study with leading questions and draw erroneous conclusions. Usability testing produces much more valid information when conducted by someone who understands the science of behavioral research.

Applying the wrong research method: User testing can mean different things to different people. It could include methods such as surveys, focus groups, A/B testing, usability testing, and so on. The method you choose depends on the questions you have and the stage of development. A survey is often appropriate for collecting opinion-based data, but not for interaction. Applying the wrong method can yield erroneous conclusions.

When conducting research studies, make sure that you know how and when to apply the correct methods to avoid bias and to get the right answers.

The Added Benefit of User Testing: Team Building

You probably are already aware of the main benefit of user research—gaining user data to inform your design and product decisions. However, there is a strong side effect of this activity: building consensus.

Clients often ask me to perform an expert review of their designs or concepts. I am happy to do it. However, I sometimes suggest running a usability study to help dissolve internal disagreements and speed up development time. It’s often better to test different theories then go in circles with internal debate.

Providing usability and design guidance is only part of the job of a UX designer or UX researcher. The other is to help teams move forward in a productive manner. The best way to do this is with data instead of opinions. It’s easy to override design solutions seeped in conjecture, but very difficult to challenge an option that is supported by evidence.

Sometimes the best way to end a meeting where assumptions are being made is to state, “Let’s test it!”

Follow that statement up with a lightweight user-research study. Not only will you have quickly either proven or disproven the assumption, but you will also have shown clear value for user research.

For example, there was recently a great debate among the people who design higher-education websites about whether a certain university’s new site was good or bad. Instead of debating, one of our UX specialists spent a single day testing that site and easily discovered the true answer (it’s bad).

Sketch and Test (then Repeat, if Necessary)

The notion of iterative design is not new (see our article from 1993) and the Lean Startup movement which emphasizes running experiments to test your design vision has helped increase its awareness. However, the mantra “Design, build, launch, measure,” commonly chanted by Lean converts, can be misleading. It assumes that a product must be coded and launched for systems to be tested with users and measurements taken. This is a misconception.

For many years we’ve helped clients speed up development time by testing sketches and wireframes first, before a single line of code is written. Don’t waste resources building something functional only to find out too late that it is not what people want or that it contains major flaws. Consider the questions you have about your concept at every phase of development and create the simplest artifact to test your assumptions. Practice makes perfect. Don’t expect to get it right immediately out the door.


User experience cannot exist without users. Creating user interfaces involves intricate and complex decisions. User research is a tool that can help you achieve your goals.

Even the most well thought out designs are assumptions until they are tested by real users. Different types of research can answer different types of questions. Know the tools and apply them accordingly. Leaving the user out is not an option.

Focusing on user experience can differentiate you from your competitors.

Written by:  Hoa Loranger, Nielsen-Norman Group
Posted by: Situated Research

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