Gone are the days where you are just a designer. Every function is now more and more specialized. You have UX designers, visual designers, brand designers, UX strategists, and UX researchers.
There’s nothing wrong with having distinct roles, but it can cause confusion about who should do what, especially relating to design research.
For example, should researchers conduct user studies? Or are designers, the ones who are closest to the product, better suited to gather customer feedback?
Specialization or exploration?
It basically comes down to this: Is it more important to have someone with a deep background in research or someone with a deep background in design?
There are pros and cons to both. But luckily, it doesn’t have to so black and white. Design research works best when you have people representing both aspects of it: the design and the research.
“How can designers and researchers work together to create the best experience?”
Here are the benefits of each:
The benefits of researchers conducting design research
No substitute for experience: Specialized workers are more productive than people who try to do everything. A researcher will have a deep background in the different kinds of research methods and usability subfields, like field studies, competitive studies, surveys, qualitative studies, and so on. Someone new to research will have a longer ramp-up time and won’t bring the same kind of experience and context to the table.
Read more: A quick guide to design research
Offers objectivity: If a designer tests her own design, she may inadvertently overlook complaints or problems. And, if the users know that she was the designer on the prototype they’re testing, they may be less likely to give honest feedback. Researchers solve these issues by offering complete objectivity. They aren’t emotionally attached to the product and may be more willing to explore negative feedback.
In-depth, post-research analysis: Once the studies are complete, researchers analyze the results and compile reports. The result: meetings and reports that allow a wide variety of people in your organization to refine and discuss the findings.
— Pablo Stanley (@pablostanley) May 8, 2018
The benefits of designers conducting design research
The ability to move faster: When the same person does both the design and research, she can run the test and immediately start redesigning based on user feedback. She doesn’t have to wait for a report or meeting to learn the research findings. Then, if she wants to gather more feedback after iterating, she doesn’t have to wait for a researcher to be available.
Research is more focused: The goal of design research is to understand the “why” behind customer behavior and interaction. And this involves exploring the design with the user, asking questions about certain features, and diving deep into usability. When the designer who came up with the prototype conducts the session, she is uniquely positioned to ask pointed questions, go down an unexpected line of questioning, or pivot the questions based on new assumptions.
Research findings have more of an impact: Reading a report about user insights is completely different than seeing and hearing that feedback come from a real customer. Being involved, in-person, during the research phase definitely makes the findings more persuasive—there is no way you can skim over important results. And, being face-to-face with customers builds empathy in a way that no video recording could.
“Design research works best when you have people representing both aspects of it: the design and the research.”
Who needs to observe?
Designers and researchers aren’t the only people who will be interested in user studies. Every person at your company can benefit from extra facetime with customers, but that doesn’t mean you need to cram everyone into the observation room.
Depending on the scope of your project, start with the three to five core stakeholders. This should include the designer, product manager, and project manager at the minimum, and perhaps someone from marketing or a trained researcher, if applicable. This is just a starting point and will vary from company to company, but just remember: Don’t overwhelm your users by packing in observers at a research session.
If demand continues to grow, you have some options for including other team members in the process. First, you could record the session and then send the link to the greater team to watch on their own time. Second, you could put some guidelines in place for observation, like recommending two hours of observation every two to three months (of course, this guideline won’t apply to the core team members who need to be present). And lastly, you could break up the sessions into smaller user groups so people can take turns observing sessions throughout the week.
Everyone is responsible
Some companies may not have to choose between researchers and designers. With small teams, the designer does it all. With large companies conducting hundreds of user studies a quarter, the research team may already handle all the logistics.
But if you can choose, remember that everyone is responsible for a great user experience. Turns out the question isn’t as simple as “Who should conduct design research?”
Rather, the question is, “How can designers and researchers work together to create the best experience for their customers?”
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Emily has written for some of the top tech companies, covering everything from creative copywriting to UX design. When she's not writing, she's traveling the world (next stop: Japan!), brewing kombucha, and biking through the Pacific Northwest.