INSIGHT: Sarah Freitag

Three ways research improves UX

Research is the foundation of best-practice UX. It’s the trusted method that can empower product teams with the insight they need to make improvements to a product. But all too often, product teams either forego research altogether, or they fail to implement it properly. This can lead to poor decision-making and result in a host of costly problems, some of which can kill a digital product.

Research takes time, resources and energy, but the gains can be transformative.

Why should you believe me, a UX researcher? If you’ve worked with my team (or really, any strategic UX team), you’ve likely heard a variation of the 1:10:100 rule — $1 spent on research is better than $10 spent on design or $100 spent to change something in development. So what, specifically, does this mean?

Make better, informed decisions

Would you buy a car without any idea of its year, make, model, type of transmission, history or other facts? Would you move forward with a health-related procedure without talking extensively with your healthcare provider about risks, recovery time or results from clinical studies? For your financial and medical well-being, I hope not.

Similarly, a company’s UX product decisions need to be based on sound research. Research helps identify current problems and opportunities and can help inform decisions. It can be the impetus for critical change. While some might consider research a costly budget line item, as alluded to in the 1:10:100 rule, the cost of implementing research is but a fraction of the cost of fixing errors down the road or trying to make an unsuccessful product successful.

Gain perspective, even from failure

Implementing research in your best-practice UX does come with some risk, including the risk of failure. Research might expose serious flaws in a product or prove that some favorite features a stakeholder was excited about are not actually being used or the right market is using the wrong product (or vice versa).

And perhaps this is you. Some product owners are so nervous, or even wary, that research could mean the imminent dead end of an idea or execution of a feature, they avoid it altogether.

As we all know, avoiding the problem doesn’t make it go away. I encourage you to reframe your perspective and look at research as a way to empower your team to get the proper perspective on the current scene of product use and understand what is working well and what isn’t. Armed with knowledge, it’s up to you and your team (and other product stakeholders) to determine whether, and how, to proceed on product decisions. And yes, sometimes beloved products die — but failing faster means you can just as soon create a new, and better, version that is more likely to succeed.

Keep the “user” in UX

A widespread myth in UX is that users are “like us” — as in, like our colleagues, like the company stakeholders, like our friends or family. Even the most seasoned product owners and teams can fall into this thinking, leading to haphazard, possibly hurried research conducted among peers who aren’t actually users of the product. The consequences can be anything from the premature launch of unvetted features to bias-based or poorly informed decisions (see No. 1) that can lead to the erosion of a product.

We might be design experts and stakeholders might be business experts, but when it comes to a product, users are the true experts.

We might be design experts and stakeholders might be business experts, but when it comes to a product, users are the true experts. They know what they do better than anyone, and it’s our job to listen to them and learn from them in order to advocate on their behalf.

By identifying actual product users (you know, the user experience part of UX) and capturing their feedback, you obtain real insights about your product’s functionality and usability. In fact, you also may be pleasantly surprised by users’ brilliant ideas for future product iterations. Either way, the bottom line is that user insights directly impact your bottom line.

As you can see, research is not just the foundation, but the cornerstone of best-practice UX. Being informed and embracing how research ultimately improves digital products will bring great possibility for teams as well as practical, citable knowledge in the course of product maintenance and improvements.

  • Photo of Sarah Freitag
    Sarah Freitag

    As Director of UX Research, Sarah draws on her deep understanding of EdTech users and her background in research, design and business strategy to enable our clients to make confident decisions that result in products that solve real needs and create demonstrable impacts on their business’ bottom lines. Like her design-side counterpart at Openfield, Sarah is responsible for fostering collaboration, team development and for bringing new strategic initiatives and methodologies that allow our company to stay ahead of the curve of what EdTech users truly need to realize higher levels of learning and teaching success. Sarah is an avid reader and an adventurous explorer. Highlights from her favorite travels include Morocco, Peru, Italy, Denmark and France. With the recent pandemic-induced reduction in travel, she makes it a point to fulfill her wanderlust with another one of her passions, cooking and baking, by experimenting with recipes inspired by cultures around the world.

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