ARTICLE: Adam Sonnett

Early and often: The importance of UX research throughout the product development process

EdTech companies are increasingly recognizing the importance of UX research in successful product development. The numbers bear this out, with industry surveys showing an uptick in companies who identify the need to conduct more in-depth customer research as digital products continue to revolutionize the marketplace. That’s a step in the right direction, for sure. But the reality is that many product teams remain uncertain about when and how to incorporate UX research. 

Your investment in UX research is crucial to the ultimate success of your product. A solid research program should include a robust mix of research methods (including user testing) and inform decisions at each phase of your product development process, from discovery and design all the way to the post-launch phase. The sooner and more frequently you include research in your development process, the better. 

Common Pitfalls in Structuring UX Research Programs

First, it may help to understand some of the most common mistakes EdTech companies make when it comes to structuring their UX research programs. These include: 

  • Waiting too long to begin incorporating UX research. Whether you’re concerned about the cost or are simply uncertain of the value, it may be tempting to hold off on UX research until you are a little further along in the development process. For example, many companies think it makes sense to wait until the engineering phase to conduct user testing. But neglecting to loop in research at the front end — especially research that involves real users — can be a costly mistake. The earliest-phase UX research is intended to validate your hypotheses around what your users want from your product and give you a nuanced understanding of the competitive landscape. Forging ahead without a clear picture of these key areas may come back to bite you. 
  • Mistaking user testing for UX research. Chances are good that user testing is the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about UX research. But UX research encompasses much more than just user testing. It also includes everything from auditing current products and researching competitors to benchmarking and understanding analogous experiences within other industries that have dealt with similar challenges. A robust research program can help illuminate your development path in myriad ways. If your UX research plan only includes user testing, you aren’t utilizing research as fully as you should. 
  • Underfunding research programs. Companies often postpone UX research because they think it’s too expensive to be used beyond a few restricted instances. Because of this, they reason that it’s best to wait to invest in research once the product is more fully fleshed out. But the reality is that investing a relatively small amount of money in research at the outset of your project can yield big savings. Remember: the earlier in the development process you identify big-picture problems, the cheaper they will be to fix.  
  • Allocating resources in less-than-ideal ways. Many companies overspend when it comes to user testing (this very tendency may drive the misconception that UX research is too expensive). User studies don’t need to be big and expensive to get meaningful results. In fact, you can consistently identify around 85% of a product’s usability issues with just five test users. Smaller, more frequent user tests are a more effective use of the same resources. 
  • Not conducting enough research at frequent enough intervals throughout the product development process. UX research has a role to play in every phase of the product development process. As I noted, the mistake we see most frequently is that product teams do not incorporate important research touchpoints often enough and early enough. 

Incorporating UX Research in the Early Phases of Product Development

As we’ve already discussed, a common mistake that can lead to major problems downstream is when product teams allow UX Research to take a back seat during the earlier stages of product development. Here’s what you need to know about the role UX research can and should play during the design and discovery phases of your project.  

Discovery Phase Research

During the discovery phase of product development, UX research is primarily concerned with your ideas about your intended project. Broadly speaking, you want to be sure that the product you’re developing actually meets the needs of your users in ways that make sense to them. If you don’t conduct thorough research at this stage, you will be relying solely on what you believe to be true about your users motivations and needs. It’s a tempting trap because, as a product leader, you feel constant pressure to keep things moving quickly. But the result of this misstep is that you actually may be building the wrong feature or functionality. Eventually you may find out users want something very different than you thought. Once a product or update is released, the cost to rework and the interruption to your roadmap will be very painful. 

In conducting UX research at this stage, your goals are to: 

  • Understand your users’ pain points and mental models
  • Form empathy for your users 
  • Understand the problems your users experience when using your product (if it already exists) or anticipate problems to avoid (if your product doesn’t yet exist)
  • Validate user personas and a user lifecycle funnel 
  • Identify the features your users most want related to your product
  • Benchmark your existing product and/or analogous products to identify accepted patterns for how features will work

At this stage, UX research should involve:

  • Stakeholder Interviews
  • User Interviews and Observation
  • Product Audits 
  • User Experience Mapping

Design and Prototyping Phase Research 

During the design and prototyping phase, UX research is key to ensuring that your product’s design is optimized for ease of use and free of major stumbling blocks. Whereas discovery-phase research is concerned with validating your concept, design-phase research is concerned with validating the nuts and bolts of the actual design that flows from your validated concept. 

At this stage, UX research should involve: 

  • Usability testing 
  • Identifying and testing user flows
  • Prototype and Interaction validation
  • Content – Do your users understand the content?
  • Brand/UI testing

UX research has something to contribute to each stage of your product’s development. The best way to get your product’s development off on the right foot is to incorporate UX research early and often. Not only will this make better use of your research budget, but it will also lead to a better experience for the instructors, students, and administrators who sign on to your product.

 

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    Adam Sonnett

    As Vice President at Openfield, Adam consults closely with our clients and ensures our team delivers the best process, velocity, service and quality to enable our clients’ digital products to surge ahead of the competition. Adam is a life-long player and fan of the beautiful game. As a season ticket holder from the get-go, he is a fervent member of the Orange & Blue swell that helped justify Major League Soccer’s decision to include upstart FC Cincinnati as its latest expansion team, in just two short years.

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