UX Design7 minute read

If You're Not Using UX Data, It's Not UX Design

Intuition and experience without UX data lead to a dangerous assumption: Designer knows best. We’re drawing a line in the sand: If it’s not based on user research, it’s not UX design.
Intuition and experience without UX data lead to a dangerous assumption: Designer knows best. We’re drawing a line in the sand: If it’s not based on user research, it’s not UX design.

Micah Bowers

Micah helps businesses craft meaningful engagement through branding, illustration, and design.

UX designers have a variety of problem-solving techniques at their disposal, but the use of these resources must be lead by research-driven insights about users. Without user-centered data, UX designers are forced to rely on intuition and experience for guidance. Why is that a problem?

Intuition and experience are assets, but separated from UX data, they lead to a dangerous assumption: Designer knows best.

Sadly, no small number of digital products are built on the shallow soil of this premise, so we’re drawing a line in the sand: UX design must flow from UX data. If design decisions aren’t based on research findings and real user insights, it’s not UX.

As designers, all of our efforts orbit a singular focus: The user’s experience. Everything else is secondary.

Past Design Success Doesn’t Replace UX Research

It’s hard to duplicate the feeling of solving a complicated design problem, of witnessing your own creativity, logic, and determination coalesce into the delight of users.

Better yet, past success helps pave the way for future solutions when designers are able to utilize methods and tools that benefited previous projects. This is a good thing. It would be foolish to start each design endeavor by forgetting what worked before.

But past success can also be a pitfall when solutions that unlocked one problem are implemented wholesale on another. If this happens in the absence of relevant UX data, the danger doubles.

The Solution…

Every design problem demands a unique solution. Assess both the positives and negatives of past design wins, and review the steps that led you there. Focus on the process, not the outcomes.

Then, use these conclusions to help craft a UX research plan. A good UX research plan keeps designers and stakeholders committed to the same goals. It also includes important project questions, timelines, and research methods that will be used.

By understanding the role of research in past undertakings, designers can better plan its implementation in future projects.

Familiarity with Users Isn’t the Same as Listening to Them

If you work in one industry for an extended period of time, you learn a lot about the people you design for. This type of intimacy is advantageous because it allows designers to anticipate user needs en route to a product experience that truly delights.

Be careful, though. Familiarity with users can lead to generalizations that prove to be untrue and may hinder a product’s UX.

User tastes and expectations can change in the tap of a button, and they are certain to evolve over time. If you’re operating with a years-old understanding of your users, it’s time to recommit to research.

The Solution…

Combine prior knowledge of users with product testing, field studies, and interviews. Doing so reveals how users truly behave in a given environment, and illuminates cultural influences that are difficult to understand independent of firsthand experience.

Additionally, as part of the UX research process, designers are expected to craft a “persona,” a document that details the representative core user of a product. One of the most fundamental steps in UX design, personas align strategy and goals to specific user groups and answer the question, “Who are we designing for?” Even though a persona is depicted as a person, it is synthesized from the observation and analysis of many people.

A well-researched user persona…

  • Paints a reliable portrait of your most important target user.
  • Clearly outlines the core user’s attributes, behaviors, motivations, goals, and needs.
  • Unites designers and stakeholders around a common understanding of who the user is.
  • Helps designers decide what product features are most important to the user.

Heuristic Analysis Isn’t UX Research

Heuristics are predefined usability principles (empirical rules of thumb, standards, and conventions) that have been observed and tested over an extended period of time. In a heuristic analysis, expert evaluators identify the usability issues of digital products and rate their severity, thereby allowing UX designers to quickly learn about and address shortcomings.

Heuristic evaluations are essential, but unlike user research, they don’t provide the necessary UX data needed to design digital products. Remember, heuristics are predetermined. They’re best practices to judge by, but they’re no alternative to real feedback from real users.

The Solution…

Always build products on a foundation of user research. You should never design a product and move to heuristic evaluation before research has taken place. Here’s the proper progression:

  1. At the start of a UX design project, use qualitative research to learn the why’s of user behavior. Qualitative outcomes are non-numerical (e.g., preferences, feelings, etc.) and are obtained by activities such as interviews, field studies, and ethnography.
  2. When a product or prototype is available for user testing, employ quantitative research to learn how people actually interact with the product. Quantitative data is based on measurable evidence (e.g., success rates, task completion times, etc.) and is acquired through methods like analytics, A/B testing, and eye tracking.

The way we think about UX design isn’t static. Processes, tools, and outcomes are always open for debate, and it’s refreshing. Just when it seems like every designer has adopted a standard methodology, someone comes along and shakes things up with a revelatory approach that inspires us to think and act differently.

New design theories and popular fads keep our field fresh, but they can also be taken out of context and forced on products in ways that bewilder users. Square peg, round hole.

The Solution…

Investigate whether or not a popular fad is appropriate for your product by weighing it against established design principles. If doing so leads to an update of your product, pair usability testing (a must for feature changes) with heuristic evaluation.

In tandem, user feedback and expert analysis will help UX designers:

  1. Determine whether or not a product is working cohesively and benefiting users after introducing a new UX fad.
  2. Gain a comprehensive understanding of their product’s overall usability.

UX Data Can Be Collected Throughout the Design Process

Maybe you already appreciate the value of UX data. If so, you’ve experienced the impact that user research has on the design of digital products. Guesswork is reduced, product features are focused and effective, and your work is making a positive impact on the lives of users.

As you continue to engage the UX process, stay alert. The repetition of design tasks and the rapid pace of projects can lead to a subtle drift from data-driven UX—back to that dead-end, designer-knows-best mentality.

The Solution…

Participate in research throughout UX projects. User research shouldn’t be some obligatory box checked at the start of a project. Each stage in the UX design cycle presents opportunities to gather data and user-centric insights.

This chart shows the different steps in a UX design project and lists corresponding user research exercises, but the big takeaway is that user needs should be kept at the forefront of all design decision-making.

Data-driven UX Design Is the Only UX Design

“UX designer” can be a thankless role, one where a seamless experience garners little more than swipes, slides, and vacant stares. There are countless unseen interactions built into digital products, a multitude of minuscule design outcomes that only get noticed when they don’t work well. If we judge our work by accolades, we’ll grow discouraged or complacent. Thankfully, there’s another way.

The needs of the user must be the UX designer’s central focus. When this happens, the pursuit of praise loses its luster, but the only way to arrive here is through the rigors of user research. Steve Jobs said it best over 20 years ago: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”

Data and research are the bedrock of the UX decision-making process. Everything else is a crutch, a deviation from good design, and every “UX” project devoid of UX data is in serious danger of collapse.

• • •

Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

  • What is the purpose of user research?

    The purpose of user research is to gain insight into the real problems, behaviors, feelings, and environments of people and the products they use. This will yield data-driven UX. The outcomes of UX research are used by designers to improve and refine the experience that users have when interacting with a product.

  • Why is user experience so important?

    The user experience is important because products are made for people, not the other way around. Designers must learn what features and product details will improve people’s lives, otherwise, users are subjected to the frustration of poorly designed experiences. The importance of user research can’t be overstated.

  • What is a heuristic analysis UX?

    In a heuristic analysis, expert evaluators identify the usability issues of digital products and rate their severity, thereby allowing UX designers to quickly learn about and address shortcomings. A well considered UX research plan will typically include a heuristic analysis.

  • How do you conduct a heuristic evaluation?

    A heuristic evaluation is conducted by usability testers and is part of data-driven UX design. Over the course of the evaluation, researchers grade the severity of usability issues and craft a report that ranks findings. Typically, UX designers will work from this UX data by starting with the most critical issues.

  • What is user data?

    User data is an umbrella term that encompasses the wide variety of findings that user experience researchers may uncover with usability testing tools during UX research. Data-driven UX data can be both quantitative and qualitative in nature, covering the gamut of hard data and human emotions.

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