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User Experience Research - Value and Foundations February 27th, 2013

User Experience research practices aim to identify needs and mitigate risk having based and subsequently repeatedly tested design hypothesis with current and potential users.

Deliverables and artefacts produced from a UX phase of work are classified into tactical and strategic. Tactical items are those that aim to communicate findings and reach agreement. Strategic findings provide the insight needed to define services that are differentiated from the current market place.

One thing business is very good at is commoditisation. Businesses like knowns and expected outcomes. The more repeatable and ultimately cheaper an outcome is reproduced the better. To achieve affordable reproduction requires a clearly defined and tested foundation.

Many acknowledge that as a discipline User Experience has a lot to offer organisations that aspire to be successful and out perform their competition.

Some suggest that UX needs to be bought to the attention of the C suite. I argue that its case has already been heard, and to a great extent its processes have already been commoditised. Commoditised in as much as the tactical artefacts of a UX process are accepted and have become deliverables of having ‘done’ a UX phase.

The tactical activities already by default appear on boilerplate project plans, however these time boxes usually barely account for the actual production of the artefact. The resource required to research and identify the needs of users who are placed at the centre of the enlisted design processes is often lacking.

Commoditised tactical deliverables of UX

Regularly project plans identify tactical UX documents such as Personas, Wireframes, Site Maps and Prototypes. Many more variations and types result from UX, however these are most common. Where these tactical artefacts are standalone expect to fall short of delivering a successful outcome.

The sole intention of these tactical documents is to communicate the findings of field research that allows design decisions to be made with conviction.

The documents primary aim is to facilitate reaching agreement of how best to proceed. From this agreement design decisions are made now and defended later in the project. Yes, all these documents can be produced without any strategic research following standard design patterns or being based on a practitioners previous experience.

If you choose this path expect to again fall short of where you aspire to be. Without even short iterative testing phase, design will remain an untested hypothesis.

Hypothesis should be proven, basing product strategy solely on common design patterns or practitioner experience alone is a risky strategy. Your business is unique and your customers have expectations of what you should be offering that may well differ from what you currently or plan to provide.

Time and again patterns prove inappropriate or incapable. Prior industry experience can be rendered invalid when designing for a particular target audience.

Projects that succeed are directed through a tightly coupled interconnected communication structure that’s tied tactical direction to the strategic insight that even the most limited of research can provide.

With interpretation this same information can inform the definition of metrics that identify a successful outcome.

Differentiation through strategic insight

During strategic UX research, customers are telling you what they prioritise and value when using your service. Importantly here, telling is not to be confused with designing as this is still to be done once all the information has been processed.

Most valuable of all is that the research outlines content, functionality and moments of truth that your business should prioritise and plan to deliver above all else.

Where strategic research is sidelined or overlooked design and direction can only be based on business requirements or worse still the most vocal of stakeholders. In these scenarios the best that can be hoped for is that the project delivers what the business needs to carry on as it did yesterday.

Without joined up UX artefacts based upon insights from talking and observing what, when and why real customers transact with your business, you will be ill equipped to defend and support design decisions now and later in the project.

How intensive - ultimately valuable - a strategic phase is will be entirely dependant on your budget. User Experience practices can accommodate all budgetary and time constraints.

To reach an agreeable outcome all constraints need to be understood prior to scoping a capable research phase that delivers actionable results.

To be capable of obtaining meaningful insight delivered from UX research you need to allocate the resources to support the process of understanding current and potential customers alike. Only having done this will both a tactical and strategic foundation capable of supporting the development of a successful product or service be available.

These foundations however solid may identify scenarios that could prove difficult to accommodate in current business processes, simply because they require change and brave commitment to do something new.

User Experience methods support the validation of design hypotheses and importantly test and clarify that identified user requirement serves the widest set of identified users possible.

Solely viewing User Experience as a tactical practice renders the investment incapable of delivering meaningful results. To achieve the highest return UX needs to be viewed at a strategic practice. The highest returns come from engaging strategic research early in a project to deliver findings to support the definition of business requirements that together define a service.

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