What is the effect of user research on the researcher?

Since several years, I write on a “Beg­inner’s Guide to Finding User Needs”. One of my recent changes was the first section about why one should do user research. It is titled “User research helps you to create more useful products” 1.

So, how does user research do this? A common way to support the argument, is showing (claiming?) that research helps to develop empathy (and implicate that empathy is morally good and useful). However, “empathy” is a bit of a big word. What is in it? What does it mean to “do empathy”? How is it like? This explanation using a big word is similar to claiming that something happens, because “culture” or “discourse” does it.

Since I got stuck with the because-of-empathy-approach, I tried to describe how-it-is-like (at least for me) to think about users and their activities before and after the research. (the following is taken from the book):

before research

Without research, assumptions about the user’s activities with current and to-be-created products are often shallow and do not involve the user’s context. They focus on some features being used, but not much more.

Let’s say, I want to design an app that eases collecting and organizing knowledge snippets and their references to books and websites, targeted at PhD students. This is surely a great thing to work on—but without research, I would just have some disjointed ideas in my head: It should be more visual than other, similar software and have an efficient add-new-reference function based on scanning the books barcode, because typing is not much fun… My assumptions about the context of use are very vague: The PhD students would use the application because they need to manage references. Instead, when you researched users’ needs, you can easily think of what is important to users in rich and detailed ways, considering intertwined activities, motivations and problems of users. …

after research

In my research on collecting and organizing references with some students and professors I found several patterns which can guide my ideas for future design. […] Paper still plays a large role in their knowledge work. Users from every discipline used paper and computer at the same time. They scribbled things down in front of the screen and alternated between printouts and digital representations. Should my product try to get rid of paper by simulating the paper-based parts digitally? Or assume strength in the differences and just bridge the gap between screen and physical world? And we have not even touched finding and using review works, writing a publication, collaborating with other researchers… all this leading to more ideas that can be discarded, build upon or feed back in further research.

I wanted to show that user research helps me to have more connected thoughts about the user’s activities and that I also have a better ideas of what I don't know yet. I also wanted to show that it is an ongoing process. Even if I did research, there is still a lot I don't know yet.

minor revision on 2018-06-07

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What is the effect of user research on the researcher? by Jan Dittrich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

  1. Headlines in the book are usually assertions, so skimming the TOC yields useful information