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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?

9 comments

1 Binaebi { 01.27.10 at 9:15 am }

“Design recommendations seem to marginalize the role of the designer.”

But aren’t they merely that, recommendations? It’s an attempt to synthesize the insights into something useful, which doesn’t seem like such a very evil thing to me. In fact, I see it as a benefit, because it brings more ideas to the table that maybe you wouldn’t have seen from your own analysis of the research/insights. More people involved means less blind spots, etc.

Other than that, I agree the design shouldn’t be dictated by the research, but inspired by it.

Also, I’m wondering about the information that is handed from user researcher to designer. Is the research analysis/summary step skipped in favor of design recommendations? Seems a shame to me, if so.

2 Josh Evnin { 01.27.10 at 10:53 am }

You raise some good points in this entry. I wholeheartedly agree that being an Interaction Designer in a highly specific domain is a challenge, and one certainly must earn his or her stripes in that domain before truly understanding the full scope of design. On most of your other sentiments, though, it looks like we are in disagreement.

I believe in an open design process. As a designer, I take feedback and recommendations seriously from anyone who gives them to me, be they User Researchers, Product Managers, Software Developers, or company executives. The idea that it’s only the trained designer who holds the key to the ‘magic’, as you call it, is a myth. In the software and web world especially, there are endless examples of “magical” tools that were never touched by Interaction, Graphic, or other types of designers. As designers, we exclude the opinions of others to our own demise, as well as making us as a community seem like closed-minded, turtlenecked jerks.

In the organizations I have consulted for (many highly domain specific), a major problem is siloing parts of the company with responsibility for very specific tasks. Your model, in which a User Researcher (who you may have sat next to in Design School, no less!) is not allowed to make design recommendations is preposterous to me.

As a defense for the value you provide, keep in mind that a User Researcher may only have insight into *user* needs. While these needs are definitely important, it’s up to the designer to think about numerous other stakeholders, be they business needs, technical capabilities, or “mere” aesthetic qualities.

In the end, I say relax, take recommendations for what they are: mere recommendations. When I present a design it’s not a set of recommendations…it’s a holistic design solution. Sure, some of the recommendations and feedback I’ve received along the way is wrapped in, but a lot is also left out. You’re the designer: focus on the design, listen to those around you, take care to think about the world from their position, and please, please don’t create yet another unnecessary silo among collaborators.

3 Dave { 01.27.10 at 11:16 am }

This is a great topic. Lots of good questions here. I think the gray area between research and conceptual design is the trickiest and most important part of interaction design practice.

In principle, I like the Cooper recommendation that user research be done by interaction designers themselves. This allows a seamless translation into design and avoids the problems you mention with lack of product knowledge, etc. Of course this is difficult in practice because IxDs already have so many responsibilities its hard to do everything well. On my own team, I wish I had a dedicated user research expert to work with. But even if I did, I would still want to collaborate in the research process as much as possible, especially in interpreting findings.

Again, I’ll drink the Cooper kool-aid and say Personas and Scenarios are key artifacts for this stage. Personas are not design recommendations, but they’re not just summaries either. They are interpretations that focus empathy with the most important user goals. I think persona creation needs driven by the person who actually conducted the research. But its also important to get input from a designer who can identify whats most important to the product. Context Scenarios are more like high-level design recommendations in that they actually envision the future user experience. Scenarios should definitely be driven by designers not researchers. Researchers can help provide input about user goals, but shouldn’t be necessary since thats what personas are for.

4 Dave { 01.27.10 at 11:28 am }

Also, while I agree with Josh that recommendations should be welcome from every source, I think its important that personas receive focus as the primary outputs of the research phase. In my company there is such a tendency to rush toward product requirements that even when research is done, the value is often skipped over without taking the time to really understand and communicate the users goals.

5 Christian Beck { 01.27.10 at 11:44 am }

Binaebi> Thanks for your comments. I’ll start with your last question first. We do receive analysis and summary as well. At least in my current workflow, recommendations are more official than just say, a team member sitting in on a design review and offering recommendations. I certainly don’t find researchers’ recommendations ‘evil’, but often designers are expected to track designs back to the researcher’s deliverable. And if this includes recommendations, I find it to be less useful than tracking back to analysis. In the end, you are absolutely right that it helps to get as many eyes on the problem as possible, I just don’t think that the output of research should have direct impacts on design decisions.

6 Christian Beck { 01.27.10 at 11:59 am }

> Dave + Josh

Josh, I’m really glad to see your response because you seem to have much different design experience with consulting firms. Exactly the kind of perspective I wanted to get. Dave really hit my point on the head and better articulated my issue with this process. Josh, I’m not so sure we’re in disagreement. Firstly, I’m not talking about recommendations in the same way you reference getting them from PMs, Devs, etc. I always take feedback from other groups. I have design reviews with other functional areas after getting critique from my design team. It’s probably my fault for misrepresenting what I wanted to say. Second, I’m certainly not belittling any researcher I sat next to in class. But, if you honestly feel that there weren’t certain people better suited for research, and those for design, you’re lying to yourself. The point is that concrete recommendations for what a design should be is not utilizing the research or the researcher’s strong points well.
Dave brings up a great example of deliverables that are appropriate from a researcher. Personas and Scenarios are great tools for designers and are much more natural by-products from research. In a way, if a researcher’s end deliverable for the designer is recommendations, a huge step is being skipped. I also drink the Cooper kool-aid (see my last post), and find it useful for designers, but also a good bridge across the gap I’m mentioning here.

Josh, what I don’t understand is your mentioning of silos. It’s ironic because having full-time researchers IS a silo in and of itself. My goal here is to acknowledge this silo exists (and as Dave mentioned is probably desirable for busy designers), but to find out what is the best means of transitioning. Research is a fundamental part of the design process and when it’s “outsourced”, a silo is created. My argument is simply that recommendations–as an official deliverable–are not that best transition.

7 Chatree { 01.27.10 at 4:56 pm }

I’m glad you wrote this post because I can’t just replied within 140 characters either. When I said the researcher should be giving analysis of findings, I really believe that’s the art of user research. “high-level summaries of user behavior and preferences” is not enough, because anyone (including monkey) can do it just by looking through raw data. What designer wants is not just the “what” but the “why” they are doing such behavior.

I have experienced this situation as well where less-experienced researcher only report what users do and what they want but not the root of the goal, most of the time, I would ask questions to the researcher to dig deeper into the problem and we both would get to the problem we are trying to solve. It might be because my team is small so I don’t have such separation between research/design like your environment. I just think that it’s not that difficult to be on the same page as the researcher and let them know you want the “why” and all the rationale behind user behaviors and preferences.

As for design recommendations, that’s what people love to do. As a designer, I get recommendations from everyone like management, users, engineers, supports, etc. I understand you expect the researcher to be the last person to be giving recommendations (they should be on our side) but if he does that, then it’s just another input. I always feel that a big part of our design role is to make the best compromised decision based on inputs and real world limitations, but after all, we make final decision. As long as the researcher get me what I want (the “what” AND “why”), I don’t really care if he waste his time trying to redesign or not. If the researcher is doing recommendations while already giving you what you need, then that’s a sign of there’s not enough research work to do.

And again, I mentioned that I work in a small team, I feel that it’s not a clear cut between a “researcher” person and “designer” person. Especially, we are doing user experience, not visual design. The best way to come up with good design for me is to sink myself into user’s shoes. That can be done with my own research or a user researcher. So, analytical minds help designing as well. I can’t say much for the researcher but I think there’s a lot of creativity going on there when they talk to users or doing usability study.

I think the worst that could happen with your situation is the researcher wants to give recommendations and that cause bias in research findings. People have bias. Designers have bias – big time. I hope it’s not the case for your researcher.

8 Dave #2 { 03.12.10 at 1:03 pm }

Great discussion and comments! I think you drive your point home in your comment when you say “In a way, if a researcher’s end deliverable for the designer is recommendations, a huge step is being skipped.”

I am all for getting ideas from everyone, but if a researcher submits design recommendations instead of an artifact that represents user behavior and needs, then we have a problem.

But what about if they provide this research artifact & recommendations? It seems like how the recommendations are given makes a big difference. In the case you mentioned, the recommendation sounds very formal and locked down, which is cutting out important parts of the design proccess.

If recommendations from researchers are low-fi and informal, I actually think they are a great jump start to the design process. Every time I work with one of the researchers on my team she gives me tons of design recommendations and ideas when she hands off the findings. The nice part is that she does it in an informal way using whiteboards and sketchpads. I don’t always use the ideas she provides but on occasion they lead me in interesting directions or leave me inspired.

I think the

9 Christian { 03.30.10 at 12:54 pm }

Thanks Dave. If I rewrote the post, I’d probably center on that phrase. I like discussions like this because it helps clear up my initial thoughts, which are rarely totally clear to begin with.

The format you’re talking about sounds totally fine. It actually feels more like the researcher is part designer, just as I would consider designers part researchers. I guess my issue is with the process we used recently which was a formal report that designers didn’t collaborate on at all. Frankly, at this point there is little by way of recommendations in the report that are useful for me to design with. This is why I argue against silo-ing these roles because there’s too much overlap.

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