Can I Make a Recommendation? The role of researchers in the discovery phase
I’ve had several experiences with user researchers on the products I design. At first, my design team had a dedicated “usability engineer” that worked on our team. That person has since moved on, leaving us designers to conduct research ourselves. Over the past year, we’ve used two different user researchers. One was an outside firm and the other someone we’ve brought on to our team recently. These experiences prompted me to tweet recently about my thoughts on how user researchers should influence the design process—specifically in the preliminary research phase. 140 characters didn’t allow me to express myself, so I’m taking this opportunity to clarify my thoughts on what a user researcher’s role should be in the design process during the research phase. There are a lot of things I could discuss in the area of research and design but I want to focus specifically on the area of what a user researcher should be expected to deliver to a designer.
Each company has a slightly different design process. For the sake simplicity, I see them as research (or discovery), conceptual design and prototyping, detailed design (spec), and usability testing. My company has had usability engineers with an emphasis towards the final usability testing phases, but more recently I’ve been lucky to get the opportunity to work more with user researchers. Their roles throughout the product lifecycle are still being defined, but I want to speak specifically about their role in the research ,or “discovery”, phase of the design process.
I mentioned the basic design workflow because I firmly believe that it’s ideal for designers to be active in each phase. But with the introduction of dedicated user researchers, this becomes more difficult. How much of this phase should be owned by the designer and researcher? In my current project, the researcher dictated the protocol and recruited potential users for site visits and interviews. Designers on the team gave input into the topics to be covered in the field. This process worked well. The struggle has been figuring out what to do with the research and who should do it.
The final deliverable from the researcher for my current project contains not only high-level summaries of user behavior and preferences (which I’m okay with), but an organized series of design recommendations. This I do have a problem with. First of all, researchers may not necessarily be equipped to make such design recommendations. Sure, a lot of us went to the same design school with researchers. But I bet you can think back at which ones were better designers and which were better researchers. Most design curriculums allow the freedom to drift towards either one. This means two people that have the same degree might actually have completely different skill sets. I for one know several of my design peers who are dedicated user researchers. The analytical minds are best at researching, the creative minds are best at translating that into a design.
Second, particularly in the case of using research firms, researchers may not have the product knowledge that you have. This is very specific to my experience because there are so many variables involved. For one, I work on software that’s been around for years. It’s also very domain-specific. As a result, this may not be such a big deal for those in web design or those designing consumer software that may be easier to relate with. In any case, it’s a definite disadvantage in my line of work because the insights gained from user research are only as good as the domain knowledge of the researcher. If you don’t understand the long-standing cultural differences between CAD designers and GIS mappers, the quality of your insights is diminished.
Last, making design recommendations as a direct output of research circumvents the creative process that serves as the foundation for any design field—the ‘magic’. I believe all designs should somehow tie back to research findings, but design should not be dicated by the findings. In other words, if I’m given a design recommendation, then what exactly is my role as a designer? If a design recommendation is meant to be a guide for the designer, then where’s the opportunity for innovation? Design recommendations seem to marginalize the role of the designer.
So what should a researcher hand off to the designer? My friend Chatree stated it rather well, “[a] dedicated researcher should be giving analysis of findings rather than design recommendation.” In other words, a researcher should provide summary and analysis without any notion of a potential design solution in mind. The rest of the conceptual design process should be left up to the designer. It is his or her job to look at the research findings and determine what this means in the interaction design. This plays to the skill-sets of each person. The researcher focuses exclusively on analyzing behavior and patterns. The designer has the freedom to interpret this in a way that makes sense in the context of their expertise of the product. This avoids the researcher misappropriating the research and the designer misinterpreting the research.
Please feel free to express your own thoughts and experiences in the comments because I’d like to get a broader picture from other interaction designers and researchers. There are many facets to the role of research throughout the design process, so remember I am focusing only on the discovery phase—pre-concept. I’m interested in hearing about experience with dedicated user researchers, contracting user research, or how you (as a designer) conduct research yourself and whether you find it to be the best option. Also, if you are a dedicated user researcher, what works best for you?