Disillusioned with lack of user research

almost 5 years ago from , UX Consultant

I'm sure this topic has come up many times before (I did a Google search on Designer News and found a couple of unrelated but similar stories), but ...

After 10 years of being a UX designer, starting out as a stubborn, over-confident designer, making lots and lots of cringe-worthy mistakes, and little by little growing into, and becoming a real UX practitioner by understanding the importance of doing user research first, ... I'm ready to throw in the towel.

I'm tired. Of asking, begging, coaxing my peers and managers and others to do just a little user research, and getting empty promises in return, getting the run around, and just hitting wall after wall. This is my third company where I've had the title of "UX designer" or something similar, and with the exception of several usability testing sessions that I had to fight tooth and nail for, I've rarely had the opportunity to talk to an actual user. I have to depend on the opinions of stakeholders who themselves have spoken to (gasp!) actual users, but when I ask for the same opportunity, just ignore my requests.

I mean, how dare I call myself a UX designer, when I'm not even doing ... user research. Without the user, I'm just a designer.

The kicker was a lunch with the team on a new product that we're launching. We were celebrating a milestone: a year before, I was certain the product was going to be killed, but thanks to the tenacity of the product manager, it was now ready to go to beta. A HUGE milestone. During that year, I had begged and pleaded for a chance to talk to users. "Sure, sure," was the response I got. Over and over again. And then nothing.

During that lunch, I found out that the developers on the team had gone to an actual user's office and got to see how the users work. That killed it for me. I felt deflated. The user experience designer wasn't allowed to talk to users, but the developers were.

I'm probably doing something wrong, and that's why I haven't been able to succeed in getting to talk to users. And if that's the case, then why am I still a UX designer? I see articles by Jared Spool, and Nick Finck, and Jeffrey Zeldman, chiding UX designers for not talking to users. Maybe they're right. I'm not a UX designer. I'm just a designer.

And it's time to get out of the way, and let real UX designers do the job.


  • Wouter RamakerWouter Ramaker, almost 5 years ago

    First off; don't give up.

    This is tough. And a lot of UX designers will go through this in companies where UX design is a relatively new aspect of the process. In my experience there are often two reasons why companies do not want to do user research:

    1. They don't see the value in it. It costs time to arrange participants, it costs time to prepare the research and to report the findings. Sometimes companies will find it hard to see where the added value is, and if it will outweigh these costs. Unfortunately the only way to deal with this is to keep your research as small as possible for now, until you've done it a couple of times and the company sees the value of it and you've also dealt with the second reason;

    2. They are afraid that the outcome of the research isn't in line with the teams assumptions. So this is less about upfront costs, but more about the costs that it could generate. Sometimes it means redesigning a part of the site, sometimes it even means rebuilding an entire flow. In my experience this fear is best met by explaining the impact not dealing with these potential outcomes could have. Dealing with them now, early on, is far easier than in a later stage. And would (potentially) save money.

    Second; User research isn't the holy grail.

    User research is about risk management. But it's not possible/viable to test everything beforehand. It's ok to make some assumptions as long as you realise they are assumptions. A lot of times designers will base their decisions on their experience, best practices, conventions, etc., and that's ok. You can use analytics to see if they work the way you expect them to work.

    18 points
    • matt michelsonmatt michelson, almost 5 years ago

      This is very good advice. And OP, don't worry, this is a much more common problem than you may think! Every UX designer I know struggles with the problem of trying to justify their decisions scientifically, when it sometimes feels more like we're field medics than surgeons in an operating theater...

      3 points
    • , almost 5 years ago

      Thank you. What you said in 1. and 2., that makes a lot of sense. I hadn't looked at it from that perspective. And I love what you said about user research being risk management. I simply had not approached UX research from that angle. But it might just help me sell the value of user research, where ever I go next.

      1 point
      • Joseph Decker, almost 5 years ago

        What Wouter said about showing the impact is very strong, be strategic in how you communicate this to the different layers of management.

        Use formula’s with real data to show the costs and gains in a realistic way, numbers always work.

        0 points
  • Chris CChris C, almost 5 years ago

    Hey Sherif!

    I understand your frustration 100%. I struggled with the same things early on in my career when I was more heavily focused on UX design and the research part.

    I worked for some places that wanted to hire UX designers because the industry was talking about it (design) and it's importance more and they really just wanted someone to "fix" the design without actually giving them the budget to conduct research or follow effective design processes.

    Another company I worked for hired a top product design consulting company to come in and lead a complete redesign strategy. I sat in on their presentation to most of the eng managers, CMO, CFO, and CEO. This was after they'd been provided a brief and done some initial concepts to show the possible opportunities and directions. When they talked about their research process and methods, almost all the c-levels in the room questioned them and told them they didn't need research and to just "skip that part". I quit pretty shortly afterward because at that point I had been a part of too many conversations just like that and life is too damn short.

    There are so many companies out there like this - they want the benefits without the work needed to accomplish it.Don't give up on your craft and your passion - find a company that will support you and that celebrates and appreciates design.

    Here to chat if you need a sounding board!

    6 points
  • Account deleted almost 5 years ago

    If it helps it isn't just you. It happens a lot in this industry. It comes from several reason - some people can't be bothered setting up workshops to talk with users, sometimes product managers/owners know the product sucks and don't want that to be validated because it'll make them look bad. If it keeps happening just take matters into your own hands (as long as there isnt an NDA or any of that crap) and test it on your family and friends. It's probably not the right audience but it will still help.

    3 points
  • Kyle Y, almost 5 years ago

    I don't have any advice, but just wanted to say this has also been my experience too. Keep up the good fight!

    3 points
  • , almost 5 years ago

    Wow. Thank you all for the incredibly thoughtful comments. I honestly wasn't expecting any comments on this post. I just needed to let it out so I could give form to what I was feeling.

    Thank you Wouter for your comment. What you said -- "user research is risk management" -- I've never thought of UX that way. But it makes so much sense.

    You guys rock. Seriously rock. Thank you for everything you've said.

    2 points
  • Mike RundleMike Rundle, almost 5 years ago

    It sounds like you work at a terrible place. You should look for a new gig at a company that values user research. I have an unlimited monthly budget to pay users for their time and typically talk to users (industry professionals who use the SaaS application I work on) for 3-4 hours per week. Some weeks I'll conduct 8-10 hours of user research, it just depends on the project and what part of the project's lifecycle we're in. Don't get discouraged, it just sounds like you need to find a place with values that match up with your own.

    2 points
    • , almost 5 years ago

      The funny thing is, the people on my team are genuinely some of the most caring people I've met. However, there is enormous pressure to release products faster. A lot of people on my team easily put in 60-70 hours a week, every week. So they fall back to what they're comfortable with, relying on intuition rather than observation. :-(

      But you are right. It might not be the right place for me. :-\

      0 points
  • Tobin HarrisTobin Harris, almost 5 years ago

    Don't throw in the towel, there are plenty of business leaders who value what you want to do. Find a new leader.

    Put another way, you need a boss/manager who can fight your corner. If your leadership doesn't value your process, or at least give you ownership of it, then you'll never get the support you need.

    1 point
  • Scott ThomasScott Thomas, almost 5 years ago

    First, just do some small aspect of it and tell them how this insight help you complete X. They mainly want to see the value in action actually work. Once you get their confidence try to add it in your timeline. If its not in there, then you will never have time for it.

    If I never have access to the actual user, I will always ask to schedule interviews with the tech support team. They are the closest thing to the user and usually know what common problems and asks are. If no formal interview need, just walk your ass down the hall and say hi or slack the team a message.

    I would ask...

    • Which clients/users would you say reach out to you the most?
    • Could you give some examples of common question you received from user type X?
    • Could you show me and walk through some examples?
    • What are some of the common feature requests this user group X seem to ask?
    • Are there any power users that would be interest in helping us out on a future project? Know you just learn more about them.
    1 point
  • Jennifer Nguyen, over 4 years ago

    Hi Sherif, don't give up. I understand your frustration and was once in your shoes. Which was why I bounced around a few different companies until I finally found a place that was open to research. It really boils down to a few different factors, all or most of these factors have to come into play in order to breed the right environment for user research at a company.

    1) The executives has to preach to put the users first. If they're not in that mindset, there's really not much you can do to convince them otherwise. They have to at least be in the mindset that USERS are the most important. The importance of design is hard to start as a grass roots effort, it's much better if it's top down. Starts from the top and trickles down to the rest of the company. If people at the top understands this, they are much more susceptible to your pitch of bringing research because it shows you're aligned with their goals. If the executives don't believe in that, is it really a company you want to work for? No. It's important to find companies who are committed to a user's experience.

    2) You have to demonstrate that you are an expert in Research. When I first joined my company, we weren't doing research. But my colleague and I worked together to pitch the idea and ever since then, we've been running a research program for close to a year now. But here's the thing. We both came from the same program: Cognitive Science w/ specialization in Human Computer Interactions at UCSD (Don Norman runs the program there and yeah, Don Norman is a big deal). As unfair as that sounds, we both had the training and name recognition to do research. We had colleagues who worked at the company longer than us, that have tried to pitch the idea but was unsuccessful. And it wasn't until WE pitched the idea that it got embraced. I don't think the other colleagues are less competent in any way, but I think to the stakeholders, they felt more confident with the idea when it came from people who's demonstrated a lot of experience in that area already. Imagine you are a stakeholder, and an employee who previously ran a research program at Disney and doubled that company's profit, pitched the idea to you? (Extreme example, but you get the idea).

    3) The company has to be doing well. They are in a growth phase, they are not struggling to keep and find clients. If the company is worried about finances, they will not want another thing to hit the budget. Even if that thing will be the thing that saves them at the end of the day.

    So at the end of the day, it has to be the right people and the right timing. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or need clarification. Happy to discuss in more detail as it is a topic I am extremely passionate about and feel very lucky to have finally insert research at a company.

    0 points
  • Andu PotoracAndu Potorac, almost 5 years ago

    Switch careers - become a Product Manager, or to a lesser extent a Product Designer.

    0 points