Design Process
9 minute read

Don’t Listen To Customers – Why User Research Matters

Shane Ketterman
Shane comes from a background in architecture, information technology, customer experience, and UX design.

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” —Steve Jobs

How many times have we heard customers tell us what they want, only to learn that it’s not really what they wanted? We end up confused and perplexed.

For example, a client hires an elite design team to redesign the UI of their product. They tell the lead designer that their product is outdated, and they want a fresh, new UI. They say, “we want to feel relevant in the marketplace again.” The design team delivers, but the client isn’t satisfied with the results. What happened?

One of the reasons why user research matters is finding out the motivations of customers.
User research matters because it can help guide UX designers to find the true needs and motivations of their clients. (Image by Hal Gatewood)

Was the new design inferior? No.

We listened to what the client said, not what they actually wanted. Here’s what they were trying to convey:

Sales are not where they should be, and this particular product is falling behind, though they aren’t sure why.

A new UI isn’t going to solve this particular problem. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

Australian fashion startup retailer Shoes of Prey nearly lost their business when they listened to their customers. They asked their customers, “could you spend time conceptualizing and customizing a shoe?” and the answer was “sure.” However, the reality is that the customers didn’t want to “create” their own shoes. “We learned the hard way that mass-market customers don’t want to create; they want to be inspired and shown what to wear.”

In his book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” author Clayton M. Christensen says, “The reason [for why great companies failed] is that good management itself was the root cause. Managers played the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”

The very decision-making and resource allocation processes that are key to the success of established companies are the very processes that reject disruptive technologies: listening to customers; tracking competitors’ actions carefully; and investing resources to design and build higher-performance, higher-quality products that will yield greater profit. These are the reasons why great firms stumbled or failed when confronted with disruptive technology change.

This is why user research matters more than ever.

The hard truth is that we take what our customers say as sacrosanct.

We do not know our customers and this is why user research is so important.
Realizing the importance of user research will help UX designers find out the true needs and motivations of their clients.

This creates a problem. When we, as designers, do not challenge our clients’ responses in a thoughtful way, the entire product–and their business–can fail. But there’s a solution: in-depth user research focused on finding out what customers really want.

But why is it so hard for customers to just tell us what they need?

The Tale of Two Systems

Part of the reason customers have a hard time telling us what they need lies in neuroscience. In this branch of “brain science,” there are two types of thinking: system one and system two.

System one thinking is reactive. This is where emotions, habits, and intuition are the dominant traits.

By contrast, system two thinking is analytical; deliberate, factual, and logical.

When asked a question, most customers will answer with system two thinking because they are “on the spot” or “don’t really know,” so it’s easier to answer with deliberate and logical answers, i.e., knee-jerk reactions. As designers trying to get a project started or win new work, we accept these answers because we don’t want to question the customer.

Knowing how people respond helps UX designers understand why user research matters.
System 1 and System 2 thinking describe how people respond when asked questions.

The problem is, most people spend the majority of their time using system one thinking. When someone enters into their world and starts asking questions, they are thrown off, and they answer with system two thinking, leading to answers that are contradictory to their true, real needs.

It's not the customer's job to know what they want.

Steve Jobs

Enter User Research

The pinnacle of getting to those deep-rooted needs lies in user research; however, as professional designers, we know that user research is a delicate topic.

How many times have we heard the following from our clients when we discuss user research:

  • “We are the customer.”
  • “We have already done the research.”
  • “Our employees are the customer.”
  • “We can just ‘do the project’ and deal with any issues later.”
  • “We don’t have the budget.”

These false beliefs lead us down a dangerous path that is both unprofitable and untenable, ultimately leading to a strained relationship.

Clients want us to focus on their unique needs, which is why user research matters so much.
Clients want us to focus on their unique needs and wants. They may not articulate it well, but this is why user research matters. (Image by Austin Distel)

Inherently, clients want us to focus on their unique needs, wants, challenges, and situations, but they can’t quite articulate it, so it puts designers in a tough position. The key is more in-depth user research, but striking a balance with what the client has already done–or believes they have done–so we are not wasting their time, money, and damaging a relationship.

User Research Methods

There are many methods UX designers can use for user research, but a small handful can provide a deeper set of insights into the actual wants, needs, and motivations of our customers/clients.

User Interviews. When paired with proper qualitative analysis such as thematic analysis, user interviews are a superpower in determining the true feelings and motivations of the customer. User interviews can be done in-person or remotely (preferably with video), and they employ the use of observations, listening, and non-verbal communication, which makes them a powerful tool.

User Observation. Observations are performed by a UX researcher or UX designer who watches the customer going through everyday activities. The idea is to compare and contrast what is said versus what is done. There are two types of user observations:

  • Controlled. A controlled observation is performed in a lab or pre-arranged setup. It gives user researchers a good idea of what customers actually do in differing situations. One note of caution: be careful of The Hawthorne Effect, which is a phenomenon of research. By having attention focused on what the customer is doing, they are more likely to shape their behavior towards the expectation of the study.
  • Naturalistic. A naturalistic observation is performed “in the wild” without any pre-arranged setup. The naturalistic approach is considered more reliable and the preferred method of observing people.
There are many user research methods that help to uncover the needs of users.
Several user research methods exist which help UX designers identify the underlying needs of their customers and clients. (Image by David Travis)

Shadowing. In contrast to observation, which is inherently passive, shadowing is an active research methodology with the UX researcher joining the customer to perform activities. It is done in the customer’s natural environment and provides deeper insights into their motivations and behaviors. Care does have to be taken, however, to ensure the researcher does not introduce their own biases into the activities being performed.

Usability Testing. A stable user research method, usability testing is meant to reduce bias and observe customers as they attempt to complete tasks. One of the benefits of usability testing is to identify problems early so they can be addressed. Concerning finding out what customers do, instead of what they say, this UX research method is one of the simplest to set up, observe, and learn from. It’s best to have a pre-set idea of the activities we want the customer to perform, unlike the other UX research methods which are more free-flowing.

But how do we know that our user research is providing the results that will give us what we need? How do we know we are on the right track?

The truth is, we don’t know. User research can provide a lot of insights and data, but this all leads to hypotheses that need to be tested, sometimes over and over. There’s a technique called the five whys of problem-solving. It is theorized that if we ask “why” five times, we will arrive at the root of a problem.

User research is similar. It could be called the five whys analysis. We have to continue asking questions until we reach the actual underlying needs of the customer, and we know we have concluded that when we are dealing with emotions, motivations, and needs. At this stage, we have moved far beyond listening to the customer.

Further User Research

But what happens if we get stuck and user research isn’t producing the results we are seeking? In this case, we can supplement our research methodologies with additional principles such as behavioral economics.

Behavioral economics describes how the majority of people will behave under certain circumstances. It is designed to help researchers better understand customer behaviors when other techniques don’t work. Think of behavioral economic principles as universal research insights that describe the underlying issues your users aren’t consciously aware of but are driving their decisions.

Here are five behavioral economic principles that can be used with user research.

Anchoring. The first thing we see, a number, for example, will sway our judgment and decisions further down the line. Anchoring is about frames of reference, and it can be potent. As a great example, we can refer to Steve Jobs. In many of his new product reveals, he would say, “Now you might think that this product would easily cost $1299, however, we are pleased to tell you that it’s going to launch at only $899.”

What just happened was anchoring. The $1299 price will stick in our minds, so when he mentions $899, it seems like a bargain. Note that even $899 is expensive, but it will not look that way due to the frame of reference.

For user research, we want to be very deliberate when it comes to anchoring. The first number, fact, or reference we place in front of a customer/client will have a significant impact on the rest of our conversation and subsequent questions.

Supplementing user research methods with behavioral economics principles.
We can supplement user research methods with behavioral economics principles when we are not getting the results we want.

Defaulting. Referring back to system one vs. system two thinking, people will usually try to avoid complex decisions and stick with what they already know. When we are trying to learn about their needs, wants, and motivations, we can use defaulting to our advantage by removing any barriers to completing tasks or answering questions. Conversely, we can add barriers to hinder less than desirable behavior.

Ostrich Effect. People who are worried that they are headed down the wrong path, don’t want to know how they’re doing. This happens to us all. An example is business debt. When a business owner realizes they have gone further and further into debt, they will often continue down this path, denying the situation and not wanting to face how far they have gone.

When we are dealing with customers/clients who may be facing a difficult set of circumstances with their products or services, then we can use this principle as a supplement to user interviews, knowing that the client may not be willing to “face” the music. For this, we can build guardrails to help them stay on track, knowing they will be in avoidance.

Social Proof. Following the pack, i.e., doing what everyone else is doing, is an inherent trait we all have. It’s not just a social thing either, there’s an element of security involved (less risk).

Pertaining to user research, this can be a useful principle to be aware of. When performing user interviews or during a controlled user observation, try to normalize the situation as much as possible and help the customer/client feel comfortable by appealing to their norming behaviors instead of abstract concepts like “saving the world.”

Conclusion

We do a huge disservice to customers and clients by acting on what they say. Instead, we should seek to better understand what they are actually trying to convey. This is one of the reasons why user research matters and why we, as designers, should go beyond the surface and try to uncover the true needs, wants, and motivations that will drive superior results.

•••

Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

What does user research mean?

User research refers to the methods and frameworks used to help design professionals focus on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through various observation techniques, feedback methodologies, and task analysis.

Why do you do user research?

User research is performed in order to understand the needs of users which aren’t necessarily revealed without further observations, task analysis, and feedback mechanisms being utilized. We seek to understand these needs in order to better align with products and services being designed.

What is the purpose of user research?

The purpose and importance of user research is to better align user needs with products and services being designed. There are several user research methods and frameworks that help UX designers learn the needs, wants, and motivations of users.

Why should designers do research?

Designers should do both qualitative and quantitative user research in order to solve design problems and create a more human-centered product or service. There is also a time-saving and money-saving value in performing research.

Why should you listen to customers?

We should listen to customers in order to better understand what we will need to research further with specific user research methods that help us see what they do, instead of what they say, leading to a set of highly valuable outcomes.