User research and design: Three old chestnuts cracked

Tom Wood talks design research and why - from a business perspective - research makes sense.

When I wrote this post in 2011 I was regularly encountering people who questioned whether research had any place within design. 

Thankfully, most organisations have since learnt that unleashing complex or commercially important design into the world without some form of user research is dangerous - both to revenue and to careers. To this day, I always come across a new generation of naysayers trying to marginalise the role of research in the design process, so I thought I would dust off these observations again. People who try to make the case that complex design can be done without primary research tend to be harmless enough, except they do have a habit of wheeling out a quote to help lend weight to their argument. I’ve had a deeper look at three of these which particularly get my goat. Hopefully, this will arm you with something to say next time one of these gets thrown at you.

Chestnut #1: Henry Ford

“If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have asked for a faster horse” Henry Ford, no source.

I’ve found no convincing evidence that Henry Ford ever said this. None of the repetitions of this quote online come with an original source. Furthermore, I’ve found no references to its use earlier than 2003. (Thanks to Patrick Vlaskovits who created a clever search hack for this.)

When I contacted the Henry Ford Museum they said: “In the past research on this topic has not yielded satisfactory results either for the researcher or the research staff. Mr. Ford wrote numerous articles for a variety of periodicals and newspapers and the quotes attributed to him were varied and often unsubstantiated.”

But as a counterpoint I can source a Ford quote which I think is more useful:

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own” Henry Ford, quoted in, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie, 1937.

This quote is at least contemporary to Henry Ford and, appearing in an international bestseller, it would have stood a chance of coming to Mr Ford’s attention if he had a problem with its use.

Chestnut #2: Steve Jobs 

“We do no market research” Steve Jobs, Fortune Magazine, March 2008.

This one is harder to handle because there’s no doubt that Mr Jobs actually said it. It’s important to consider the context here though: the quote comes from an article which describes how Apple formulates its business strategy.

In this quote Steve Jobs was specifically talking about business strategy and not how they design products and software. There’s plenty of evidence in the world - much of which comes from Apple itself - which indicates that Apple does indeed carry out user research in the design process in order to better understand customers. It’s well documented that Apple pays close attention to customer feedback and satisfaction surveys. Apple’s Terms of Use specifically allow them to use customer data to“ research and improve Apple’s products, services and customer communications”. So, there you go.

My response to this quote when it’s used in conversation (oh and it is, again and again) is to point out that if you’re as brilliant as Mr Jobs maybe you can have a different relationship with research. But we're not him, so that’s why we do design research.

Chestnut #3: David Ogilvy

“The trouble with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say” David Ogilvy, no source.

Again, I can’t find any kind of original source for this quote. That said, let’s credit this thought to Mr Ogilvy because it is a) well written and b) completely true. That is one of the problems of doing research. However, what it should tell you is not to stop doing research, but to do it carefully. Maybe even (crazy idea) get professional researchers to do it for you.

The main reason I take exception with this quote is that in everything he published Ogilvy, who started his career as a market researcher, says that research is a vital ingredient in great advertising. In his book ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ he devotes an entire chapter to it called “18 miracles of research” which starts with the words:

“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”

And ends with: 

“The late, great Bill Bernbach… thought that it inhibited creativity. My experience has been the opposite.”

7 excuses naysayers give for not doing design research

So why do some people and organisations bridle at the idea of conducting user research as part of the design process? I’ve come up with a list of reasons which ascend from the superficial up to the credible.

1. Personal or professional laziness 

Simply put there are some people out there who find research boring and would prefer to be doing something else. In my line of work, life would be easier if these people all agreed to wear a t-shirt saying this. In reality what they tend to do is start using quotes like the ones above.

2. Perceive research as a threat to their authority or expertise

Sometimes we will encounter people who are genuinely worried that conducting research sends a signal to the rest of their organisation that their experience and understanding of customer needs is inadequate. More common in this group though are people who fear that research will tell them something they don’t want to hear: like their creative idea stinks, or that the board’s strategy is flawed, or that they’ll have to take longer to fix stuff to make it work.

3. Restricts creativity

Which of course it doesn’t (see Mr Ogilvy above), but it does sometimes restrict creative people. The point is that research helps you understand the areas into which you should channel creative thought, whether that be a big idea for a new service, or a little idea for how to improve a form field.

4. Don’t have the time or money

If my barber gave me a bad haircut and cited this as the reason I would question whether he’d really thought out how he did his job. The same applies to marketing and design projects.

5. It is at odds with a cultural value for strong, instinctive decision-making

Some companies like Virgin, Apple and Amstrad have cultures which celebrate and encourage bold decision-making and acting on gut instinct. I’ve met Richard Branson a few times and he showed an innate understanding of what it’s like to be a customer and he applies that into decisions which are right for his business. The trouble is that in an organisation with tens of thousands of people not every employee is going to have that same talent. But if they feel empowered (or even compelled) to rely only on their own judgement in a design decision this can create really bad outcomes for both the business and the customer.

6. Don’t understand the risks attached to design decisions

This is by far the most common reason I’ve encountered as to why people fail to conduct research during design. It’s horrible to see clients (often really nice and reasonable people) sleepwalking into really high-risk decisions. They are often surrounded by creative agencies and advisors who aren’t adequately invested in the risks their ideas are creating. As well as being a well-source for creative thinking, research is also an extremely effective way to decrease investment risk in design projects.

7. Don’t believe findings will be meaningful or actionable and so create value

This final point is a truly reasonable and rational objection to conducting design research. It puts the onus on user research practitioners to think carefully about the methods they use, the timing and scale of research activities and the rigour of their recommendations. Of which, I’m sure, Henry Ford would approve.

Reflecting on our three quotes, there is of course wisdom in all of them. A theme that runs through each one is the futility of starting a design process by directly asking customers what you should build for them. But you can quite easily harness the creativity and energy of customers into your design process by using the right research techniques.

The role of research in design is to support iterative development of ideas and interactions. The customer does not replace the creative designer, but becomes a partner in the design process – helping the designer to test, tune and develop their thinking at each step of the design process.

Mr Ford, Mr Jobs, and Mr Ogilvy were all smart people who were making a specific point about the role of research. We do them a disservice if we use their words out of context and to justify a view that customers should be excluded from design.

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