Why user research is everybody's job

User research should be conducted by all team members throughout a project's lifecycle, says Emma Boulton.

I'm always hearing freelancers and agencies using the 'clients won't pay for research' get-out clause as a reason for not doing any. Perhaps they don't see the value of research or perhaps they won't pay for more as they do their own research.

I ran a survey at the start of February 2014, which had 226 responses. A total of 57 per cent of those who responded said that audience or user research was sometimes used in their company project workflow while 29 per cent said it was always used during their project workflow. Of those people working at an agency, 14 per cent said that audience or user research was never used as part of a project - much higher than freelancers (10 per cent) and those in-house (seven per cent).

I've come across many companies where there isn't any in-house expertise to conduct audience or user research. Data may even be collected but there is no-one to analyse and interpret it or turn it into design recommendations. If research does happen, it seems to be easiest to add it into a 'discovery phase' in client projects by agencies or freelancers, as a distinct activity that can be 'delivered' and billed for.

Forty four per cent of respondents said that audience or user research typically occurred during a discovery phase. Freelancers and those working at agencies reported more discovery phase research. Those working in-house carried out user or audience research throughout a project the most.

If you think of the design process as a funnel, research should happen at both ends as well as the middle of the funnel. In my experience, there's plenty of research happening at the narrow end of the funnel, such as testing specific interactions or user flows, but less at a strategic level. Even before doing any work at all on a project, you need to understand how research fits within an organisation. Understanding the research 'landscape' is just as important as doing it. Understanding the organisation's audience strategy is key. Who are they trying to reach with their products or services and why?

Who's responsible?

Just over half the people I surveyed said that audience or user research was the responsibility of the design team. Next highest was the UX team (41 per cent), followed by project or studio managers (35 per cent). In-house companies are the most likely to have a research team. These findings were amplified as companies and teams got bigger. Designers are less likely to do their own research if they work in a large team.

When there isn't a UX or research team, or you're working alone, it makes absolute sense for designers to conduct their own research. Even when a UX or research team exists, pairing designers with UXers and researchers can make for both better research and application of the findings. Relying on the client to do their own research means you'll be further away from the problem and insights you'd gain from doing it yourself. If a client provides their own research, you'll need to fully immerse yourself in it to get the most out of it.

Working in silos can really hinder a joined-up design process and the application of audience insights to create a unified user experience. As part of a team of seven at Mark Boulton Design, our preferred project workflow is something akin to 'everything all the time'. There is no fixed part of the process when research, design and development take place. Research activities happen in-line with other project work and provide insight into design problems, or product development. We keep our processes fluid and have various methods and tools to hand.

The big reveal

'The big reveal' isn't helpful in research the same way it's not always helpful in design. Clients don't always take surprising research findings easily or bold research recommendations well. The real value from research comes from an insight-based approach when small snippets of insight are used throughout a design process to aid decision-making. Design and research need to happen in tandem as openly as possible to ensure the smoothest ride with clients.

When working lean or with a 'everything all the time' workflow , getting audience insight into the heads of designers quickly results in better and earlier design decisions. User research can't happen in a silo and, considering the needs of the audience, can't just be the job of a UX person. Undertaking research must be everyone's job and using the insights that research can reveal must be part of every designer's job.

Words: Emma Boulton

Emma Boulton is research director at Mark Boulton Design. She previously worked in online advertising and with the Audiences team at the BBC. This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 253.