The thing that makes user research unique

There’s one thing that always takes businesses a while to understand about user research – a faulty way of thinking that needs to be overcome for them to deliver good design.

In traditional businesses, reports and documentation are expected to depict a competent team in total control, heading in a dignified and controlled direction according to the agreed company strategy, with little graphs that go up and to the right.

The thing about user research is that it delivers bad news every time. It depicts reality – the fact that you don’t control how your customers think, that they see things differently and that changes are needed if you’re ever going to please them. It doesn’t make you look good. That’s the whole point.

If you’ve been involved in user research that shredded all your carefully-made designs and delivered a gut punch that left you reeling for 24 hours, you should be proud. That’s the best kind of user research. Don’t be ashamed – bad news is opportunity knocking.

If you’ve been involved in user research that didn’t hurt at all, then I guarantee you did it wrong. A researcher who is keen to please the design team is useless.

User research is unique because it’s about seeking out the bad news. It’s about finding evidence that can flip your position on firmly held beliefs – the wording on that button, the structure of that page, the order of that journey, or even nature of the proposition.

If you want to start getting good news from user research, you just have to keep doing it. It’s like going to the gym. Of course the first visit is horrific. The value comes later, after many repeated sessions.

If you want to make progress with user research, you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.