Are we seeing the demise of user researchers? How are they to keep afloat in a sea of user experience advocates? In this post, we’re discussing the deterioration in the effectiveness of user research as its impact on software diminishes.
User research is the practice of understanding user behavior, as well as their needs and interactions with products and services through observation. In industry, the practice delivers products that meet the needs of customers, and delight customers – this much is true. But with today’s software development industry filled to the brim with individuals claiming to be user experts and tools that are increasingly automating our processes, are user researchers becoming obsolete? Read on to explore the challenges that real customer advocates are facing in today’s software development industry.
Problem: Everyone (and their mother) is a user expert
Way back when, the user researcher’s job description was brimming with phrases such as “advocate for the user” and “user representative.” Without the user researcher’s input, developers and designers would have developed and designed what they thought best, with, potentially, very little knowledge of the user’s needs.
But nowadays, more and more people who do not have the correct skills, are regularly speaking on behalf of the user, with the input of usability testing tools, such as UserZoom and UserTesting.com. Now, don’t get us wrong, we’re all for usability tools that help and enable us to make user-centered decisions. But one thing that these tools cannot offer, according to Leah Reich writing on Medium, is empathy for the user. According to Leah: “Empathy is an edge, a competitive advantage – but only if we continually remind ourselves that humans use the things we make.”
The problem starts when people apart from the actual user researchers claim to understand the user’s needs. This is happening because everyone who interacts with the product is expected to be a user experience gatekeeper. But, when this happens, it makes it hard for user researchers to verify that they, exclusively, know their users.
Problem: Usability testing tools are chipping away at user researchers
For decades, we have relied on observing our users directly to understand their needs and provide solutions accordingly, by engaging them in usability studies, and observing them in their natural environments.
But nowadays, we have developed more dependable and somewhat more efficient ways to know what vast numbers of people are doing with our products, in order to anticipate their perception of potential future products. Software companies are now able to explore user behavior, needs and interactions with high confidence using flighting or A/B usability testing. Here, there are two main challenges: the first being the arrival of the Digital age, which has transformed software from a physical product into a digital service. The second relates to the comparative value of the user researcher. Skilled user researchers know that analyzing large sets of product usage data can help to explain “what” users are doing, but this does not help to explain “why” users act in certain ways. Unfortunately, more often than not, user researchers are expected to just stand by whilst external stakeholders and business users simply rely on metrics to try to understand their target user groups.
Problem: No room for user research in the development process
Agile is a great method to design and develop software – find out more here! But actually, user researchers have never really fit in comfortably in this environment. Generally speaking, agile methods emphasize the iterative process, and not research practices that help to create valuable, rich user experiences. Now, this isn’t always the case – we love it when we hear of teams and companies that have successfully implemented user research into their agile strategies. However, integrating user research into the agile process usually proves to be quite a challenge.
So, what can user researchers do to stay afloat? The industry is changing, and so they must too. Given the challenges currently posed to user research, and the real user advocates out there, there are a few things to consider.
Be properly informed
If you can’t beat the system, get involved. In terms of academia, higher education curricula and training should explore the emphasis of business communication and its impact on business decisions, not just from a user experience perspective but also from a financial perspective.
Strategize to innovate
From a practice perspective, user researchers need to be continuously evolving and updating their skillsets in order to succeed as user advocates in large software organizations.
Meet somewhere in the middle
The groups building software overwhelmingly do not resemble the groups using and interacting with the software. Additionally, despite the benefits that the advances in machine automation bring us, we need to remember that empathy and human interaction will always be an important component of the user experience, and this can only be mastered through effective user research. Let’s work together to make user research and user testing is as powerful as possible, in order to do the best job we can for our users.
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