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Style + Substance: Using Research to Back up Your Design

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Agency teams are not only accountable for making beautiful designs that satisfy the client’s laundry list of requirements, but they’re also on the hook for making sure those designs will perform well with their future customers and users.

We are often brought into engagements with new agencies where some design work has been done but the project has gotten held up when a stakeholder asked what real people (not designers or clients) thought about the designs. The questions often sound something like: “What works better for users?”; “Is this really intuitive?”; or, “Is it better than our competitor’s version?”

This type of gut-checking, de-risking, and, frankly, common-sense approach to design is something we hear all the time. Design success isn’t just achieved when your client approves your mockup, but when your team has the confidence and data to tell the client it works and why.

The proof is in the people

User research is the way you’ll get the evidence and insights you need to know how well the design performs and all the reasons why. It’s not just a report card telling you what you did right and wrong. When properly done, research is a conversation that reveals insights–those creative sparks the team can run with and around which it can design ideas nobody else thought of. Research also brings a rigor to the design conversation that tends to gravitate toward the strongest opinions–which may or may not be based on facts. Research turns that swirling of opinions into a place to learn and guide your clients to the design decisions that will stick.

Design that works

Crafting a good experience isn’t just about usability or getting users from point A to point B. Though ease of use and intuitiveness are hallmarks of good UX design, we’re also after capturing a person’s imagination, evoking emotions, and creating moments people want to talk about. Peter Morville illustrates this in his “UX Honeycomb” diagram which divides the user experience into seven categories. They should sound familiar because half of them relate to the practical aspects of design and half are about the emotional. At the center is “value”–the core of what agencies, creatives, clients, and entire production teams are ultimately striving for: creating value for brands and customers.

Every design challenge is unique and requires a different recipe. The measures of success could be quick “time on task” and high success rates. Or they might be eliciting an, “Oh, that’s brilliant!” when a user is pleasantly surprised. Whatever the definition of success for the project, the UX design can be targeted to meet those needs. This should be enhancing big strategic and creative ideas, not watering them down.

Best practices get outdated

So what worked last year may not necessarily be as effective this year. And just because a client’s competitors have adopted a popular design pattern, it doesn’t mean people actually like it. Often, we’re asked to design using “best practices”–which is usually a good idea when we need to move quickly. But you really need to be constantly validating your idea of what “good design” means, and the only way to do that is by constantly talking to people and gauging how different groups react to designs in different contexts so you can look deeper than the trends and styles non-designers sometimes latch onto. So the next time you ask your designers to look at what the competitors are doing and imitate that, remind yourself it’s not a sure thing your design will be any better for adopting it.

There’s no substitute for research

Even with AI design tools on the rise, they’ll only ever be able to design something as good as the data they are trained on. There will always be a gap between even the smartest design templates and the people they are meant to serve. People are constantly evolving, and if you want your designs to stand out from the crowd (in a good way), you’ve got to make sure they work for the crowd.

References:
https://www.usability.gov/what-and-why/user-experience.html