The Role of UX Research in Designing a Mobile App


Why do we perform UX research?

Some people describe user research as a “secret weapon.” User research is now used by many large IT companies and startups to make their products usable and desirable for their end users. Google now has its own user experience (UX) research product where users can sign up to help researchers improve their products. Microsoft has its own user research team that is nearly the same size as its design team. Adobe, Autodesk, Intel, and IBM all have started to bring in designers and researchers to evaluate the user's experience within their products. I think everyone within the UX world now knows the importance of user research, but people outside of the UX world may still be confused why user research suddenly became a necessary part of the product cycle.

In the iOS human interface guidelines published by Apple, the first two principles are, “Focus on the primary task,” and “Elevate the content that users care about.” Keeping these principles in mind, we need to understand the user's needs, perspectives, technology background and mental model before we even start designing the app. For designers, user research is also about having empathy for the target users. We need to understand we are not designing for ourselves. Jumping out of our own mental models and design assumptions is a basic rule of coming up with user-centered design. Without empathy, it’s extremely difficult to come up with a product that is desirable for users.

Design is about solving problems. So when we are not 100 percent sure what the problem is and what we could do to solve the problem, we need to take a closer look at the user.

How long should the UX research phase be?

Nearly everyone who is involved in the app building process is starting to understand the importance of UX research. So how much UX research should you do? Stakeholders care about budget, project managers care about the project timeline, and developers care about when they can get the screens and start developing a minimum viable product (MVP).

To be frank, there isn't a golden rule for UX research. It totally depends on how much the company values UX research and what they need to learn. Researchers can do it quick and dirty in a short amount of time by talking to users, or they can invest years doing ethnography studies around the world. The best way to find out how much UX research is required for a project is to have a group discussion with stakeholders, managers and other members of the project team and come up with an affordable research plan. In most cases, the more user research done, the better the end result and the project will solve the identified problem. If you ignore it completely, you are setting yourself up for disaster.

How can we start UX research?

People research all the time in different forms. Marketing spends most of their time doing market research to improve product positioning and business strategy. Sales does research about their clients in order to meet their end goal and close the deal. Developers do research about feasibility and solutions. Nearly every designer believes we should do UX research before we start to design a product. In our experience it is always very hard to start a project without some upfront user research. In UX research, we need to understand the product goals like a salesperson, the current system and similar products like a marketer, and of course we need to understand the technology. Dealing with a large amount of information requires UX researchers to be flexible in their methods and the way they work with other roles of the app development team.

I have done a good amount of user research, and every project is different. Every time there is a slightly different research method, different user types I want to recruit for participation purposes, a different place to conduct the user research, and a different data analysis method.

Designing delightful mobile apps

User experience research is a key component in designing delightful mobile applications. Many times it feels like something you can skip, but without proper and comprehensive UX research you might be setting your project up for failure. Do yourself a favor — invest the time upfront with UX research and create an app that your users will truly enjoy. Believe me, the ROI is worth every penny.

Image credit: Adaptive Path

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