Research Is Communication

Jan 4, 2010

When people ask us what we do for a living, it can be difficult to explain if they aren’t familiar with the user-centered design process. As user researchers, we’ve come to realize the average consumer doesn’t expect companies to involve their users in developing their products and services. Most people envision engineers having an idea, building a product, then sending it to market. So, describing our role in a process the average consumer doesn’t understand has been a challenge.

“To have any hope of satisfying customers’ needs, a company needs to have a deep understanding of their customers and their needs. Through user research, a company can reach out to their customers and gain that understanding.”

In actuality, the reason so many small software businesses fail so quickly is because they don’t understand that their knowledge of how to build a product is not sufficient to build success. The true vision of a multidisciplinary team of engineers, designers, product people, marketers, business people, and researchers is foreign to them. If some of the people creating software don’t understand our role, it’s not surprising consumers don’t. Over time, we’ve learned to liken the user research process to communication between a company and its customers. To have any hope of satisfying customers’ needs, a company needs to have a deep understanding of their customers and their needs. Through user research, a company can reach out to their customers and gain that understanding.

Consumers have two ways in which they can communicate with companies: through their purchasing behavior and through user research. Purchasing behavior is the most important and most definitive of the two. If a company can develop a product that is easy to use and provides value to consumers, consumers tend to demonstrate their approval by purchasing that product. On the other hand, if a product fails to tap into the needs of customers or has a user interface that is difficult to use, sales are likely to be disappointing. For example, over the past few years, American consumers have sent strong messages to American automotive manufacturers through their purchasing behavior, by largely avoiding large trucks and SUVs. Instead, they’ve opted to purchase smaller, more reliable, and more fuel-efficient cars. Detroit’s big three were slow to respond to this message and survived only with the aid of massive government assistance.

When Apple introduced the Newton Message Pad in 1993, the device had difficulty finding a place in the market. Shortly afterward, Palm introduced a line of PDAs (personal digital assistants) that enjoyed huge success, making the brand Palm Pilot synonymous with the term PDA. Palm was able to succeed where Apple had floundered—thanks to their ability to tap into and understand what consumers wanted. Apple was eventually able to learn from their foray into PDA territory and introduce their revolutionary iPhone, but the lessons that brought them to that point were rather costly.
“A product’s ability to meet the needs of consumers and fit into their lives is key to its success.”

Palm, on the other hand, introduced the Palm Pilot without a similarly costly learning process. They were able to accomplish this through user research, as Dev Patnaik and Robert Becker documented in their classic article “Needfinding: The Why and How of Uncovering People’s Needs.” Toyota learned similar lessons through user research. When developing a new vehicle to appeal to an aging Baby Boomer market segment, they turned to IDEO to guide the design process. IDEO engaged in a program of design research that established the needs of the demographic, letting Toyota develop a vehicle that adapted to the lives of adults who no longer need to drive their children from place to place. A product’s ability to meet the needs of consumers and fit into their lives is key to its success.

If a decision to purchase is the final word in a conversation between a company and consumers, user research makes the first impression. Just as communication is an interaction between people, user research is an interaction between a company and its market. It lets a company get to know the people who are its potential customers before making a decision about establishing a relationship with them. Just like in relationships between people, it’s important to assess compatibility before making a commitment. Similarly, it’s very common for consumers to do their own product research before committing to a purchase. They may accomplish this by reading product descriptions, specifications, and reviews and talking to their friends and neighbors who might have prior experience with a product or brand.
“While observing behavior can tell you a great deal about what people do, it’s only through talking them that you can learn why they do it. The why behind behavior indicates what drives it.”

As a form of communication, user research is subject to many of the same rules as interpersonal communication. This is the reason we’ve studied communication to inform our research methods. Good communication helps ensure good data. And good data helps ensure a successful product.

Throughout a user research process, a researcher is a company’s representative and participants represent the market. As the two engage in a conversation about a collection of features that might eventually coalesce into a single product, their ability to understand one another is vital to ensuring the product meets the needs of its intended users. Though there are various ways in which a user researcher can objectively measure behavior, the best way to get a complete understanding of people’s experience with a product is through communication. While observing behavior can tell you a great deal about what people do, it’s only through talking them that you can learn why they do it. The why behind behavior indicates what drives it.
“Concern for customers is essential, and the communication a user researcher has with customers reflects that.”

It’s important for a user researcher to be a good representative for the company. As the company’s representative, the researcher represents the brand. Participants’ first impressions of the company depend on the researcher. He should always demonstrate a real concern for the well-being of the company’s customers. Only through this deep and legitimate concern for customers can the researcher develop the kind of understanding of customer needs that can inform the design of a product or service and ensure it fits into people’s lives. It is also the only way to convince participants that the company cares about their input and really intends to use it to guide design—so expressing their experience is worthwhile. If a researcher fails to establish this trust, participants might not feel comfortable opening up about their experience.

For example, we’ve seen someone absolutely scowl as soon as she picked up a product and started looking it over, our immediate assumption was that she hated it. When we inquired, we learned that she actually liked the product, but she’d just had an argument with her sister before coming to the research session. Armed with this knowledge, we could pause the session for a few minutes, talking with her to get her mind off her sister. Then, when we brought her focus back to the product, we witnessed an entirely different display of emotion. If we had not taken the time to talk with the participant before diving into the study, she might not have felt comfortable revealing her argument with her sister. She might have responded, Oh, it’s nothing, the product is fine, and left it at that.
“Deeply understanding their customers is what allows successful companies to think five years ahead of the market and develop products and services that revolutionize the way we live our lives.”

Concern for customers is essential, and the communication a user researcher has with customers reflects that—for example, in a desire to know why a customer has a hard time sleeping at night or just can’t find the time to get to the gym, in curiosity about why a frown just crept across a person’s face or why he cracked a smile, or in thoughtful questions about a person’s life.

Deeply understanding their customers is what allows successful companies to think five years ahead of the market and develop products and services that revolutionize the way we live our lives. Rather than just responding to what’s already on the market with derivative knockoffs and copies of what was at one time disruptive technology, companies that listen to their customers can truly innovate, without shooting in the dark like so many startups that just take a chance on an idea. By understanding the market and the needs of their customers, these companies can develop products customers want and put themselves in the best position to achieve success.