Product development: Why user research must come first

Product development: Why user research must come first

Product development: why user research must come first

Fowlam’s CEO Frances Brown talks about why it is vital to carry out user research before a single design is created or a line of code is written.

It’s heartening to see how much reference there is to user research in the design world at the moment, but one thing that I notice is that in many design processes and frameworks, research comes after initial decisions about the product have been made, and often doesn’t appear until after some version of the product has been built – a prototype, an MVP or even the actual product itself.

When developing a new product, it is vital to carry out user research before any element of a new product is built. Here’s why.

User research is about understanding your users – their needs, their attitudes, their problems, constraints and work-arounds – so that you can design a product or service that genuinely meets their needs, is attractive, useful and successful. The key word here is users. At the beginning of a design project, user research is vital to get as complete a view as possible of the world your users live in, the world in which your product will exist – the people, the places, tools and the barriers – the big picture. Research at this stage is about the product concept, rather than about the product itself – it’s not about screens, buttons and colours, it’s about situations, circumstances and needs. Having this bigger picture will allow you to understand where and how your product will fit into that world and, crucially, whether it will fit in at all. Doing research from the beginning will mean that your design is user-focused, right from the first concept.

If any design comes before research, then that design will inevitably be based on guesses and assumptions about what users need and how the product will be used. Once those assumptions have been made and some form of the product exists – even if it is a basic prototype or MVP – the focus inevitably shifts away from the big picture and on to the product. Any research carried out at this point becomes about the product itself – its features, its look and feel – and not about the users or the world in which the product will function. Questions about who will be using the product, or more to the point, about whether anyone will use the product at all, start to get overlooked – once a design exists, the first and most basic assumption is that that it should exist. If research at this stage reveals, as it often does, that the original assumptions that went into the design are incorrect and that the design isn’t solving the problem, or is solving a problem that doesn’t exist, this information is often ignored – rather than going back and starting all over again, the tendency is to plough forward, regardless of whether the fundamental concept is flawed or not.

It is this product-focused rather than user-focused mindset that leads to development teams doggedly putting more and more time and effort into products that simply have no market, losing their companies huge amounts of money in the process. Or, worse still, developing a product that definitely does have a market and could be a huge success, but doing it with such little focus on users that the eager customers waiting for it hate it and refuse to engage with it.

Your users are the ones who will determine whether your product is a huge success or an abject failure. Engaging with them early and often will ensure that design decisions are always made with them in mind so that even when compromises have to be made, they never alienate your most valuable customers. Research allows you to make sensible, informed decisions about what to prioritise, what to change and when to pivot completely, ensuring that much less time and money is spent on fruitless projects. It is an essential part of successful product design.

If you would like to know more about user research feel free to contact us.

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