Why designers should research and researchers should design

Two children at a computer

In the early days of UX, UX professionals were a rare and little known breed (if they were a bird, twitchers – that is particularly enthusiastic bird watchers, would travel from miles around to marvel at their strange and unusual plumage). Often as the sole UX representative on a project he or she had to be a one man (or woman) band, a jack of all trades. Equally adept at whipping up some UI designs, extracting requirements from those tricky users, conducting user testing sessions and ensuring that accessibility is of course not forgotten about. As the UX industry has grown, and as the number of UX professionals has grown there is an increasing level of specialisation within UX. Now it seems that someone is no longer just a UX professional, now someone is a UX designer, or a UX researcher, or a UX strategist, or an interaction designer or a mobile UX designer, or a… the list goes on. Roles and responsibilities on a project are typically narrower and it’s often the case that there are designated researchers to carry out the UX research (user feedback, user testing and so on) and designated designers to carry out the UX design (wireframes, prototypes, user journeys and so on). Designers often have little involvement in research, and researchers often have little involvement in design. After all, we don’t won’t to step on anyone’s toes do we. Sure researchers and designers might work in the same office, often in the same team and maybe even in the same room, but they carry out distinctly different jobs. This is a shame. It’s a shame because it creates more of a gap and discourse between research and design. Not just in a physical sense but more importantly in a knowledge, understanding and empathetic sense.

One mand band at a county fair

In the old days a UX professional often had to be a one-man-band and jack of all trades

The benefits of designers getting involved in research, and researchers getting involved in design

I believe that whilst there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with having distinct UX design and research roles, there should be a lot of cross over between the two roles. Designers should be getting down and dirty with the research work, and researchers should be getting down and dirty with the design work. Here’s why.

Great design is built on good research

Great UX design doesn’t just magically materialise (although some clients seem to think that this is the case) it’s built on user insights and understanding, and this comes from good research. It comes from knowing users, and knowing what’s best for users. If those creating the designs are not involved in any of the user research, and those carrying out the research are not involved in the designs, those user insights and understandings will not be fully utilised to create really great user experience.

Steve Jobs quote - The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have

Steve Jobs appreciated that good research is key to great design

It helps build empathy

User research helps to build understanding and empathy with users. Listening to someone talk about the ‘users’ is just not the same as directly meeting, and talking to users. Sure personas and user profiles are great, but actually meeting users face-to-face (even if it’s only virtually) is infinitely greater. Getting designers more involved in research, and researchers more involved in design also helps to build empathy and understanding between designers and researchers. It helps to break down the view of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. After all, there’s nothing like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes to better understand them and their work (although best check with someone first before you go stealing their favourite footwear).

Research findings are not lost in translation

A researcher (or anyone else to that matter) trying to communicate key research findings is a bit like your mate trying to explain to you the storyline of a film he just saw in the cinema. Sure he or she might be able to get across the gist of what happened, but a lot is going to get lost in translation. It’s invariably much better, and much more enlightening to simply watch the film yourself (unless of course they said that it was really c**p).

Sign showing poor English translation

It’s all too easy for research insights and findings to get lost in translation

Research findings are less likely to be undervalued

Unless a designer has been part of the research, it can be all too easy for them to undervalue or even completely dismiss important findings. Being told about user insights, or usability problems is just not the same as seeing them with your own eyes, and certainly not as persuasive.

Stuff is less likely to be thrown over the fence

Believe it or, the ‘throw it over the fence’ mentality is still prevalent in a lot of teams and a lot of organisations. A designer creates some designs and throws them over the fence (metaphorically usually) for the researcher to gather some user feedback. The researcher gets some user feedback and then throws this back over the fence to the designer.  A game of design and research ping pong ensues, which as fun as it might sound, is actually no fun at all, and is certainly not the best way to create great user experiences.

Old rusted car showing over a fence

The amount of stuff being thrown over the fence started to get out of hand!

There is greater UX involvement and consistency

It’s more likely that user research insights will turn into effective and actionable design ideas and changes if someone is present and involved for the entirety of that journey. If designers have been involved in the research, and researchers are involved in the design, there is going to be a greater degree of UX involvement and consistency within a project, which can only be a good thing.

User feedback can be gathered more quickly

If a designer wants to get some user feedback and has to wait for a researcher to become available to do so, there is the potential for a significant lag within the old design and user feedback loop (you know, the one you should have for user-centred design). If designers can assist with gathering user feedback (or even directly gather it themselves), then feedback from users can typically be gathered more quickly.

Research is better focused

A good deal of UX research involves user testing designs, validating designs and generally exploring stuff with users. As someone that was involved in coming up with a design in the first place (at least you would hope so), a designer is uniquely placed to identify and refine the sorts of design questions and assumptions that most urgently require feedback. For example, will users understand this concept? Does the navigation work? Do hamburger icons make users hungry?

Researchers and designers can build their skill-set

I’ve spoken before about the importance of UX professionals having a T-shaped skillset. Of having a breadth of knowledge and experience, with depth in a few areas. For designers that depth will be in design, for researchers it will be in research, but the important thing is that both have the capability, and opportunity to work across both. By encouraging designers to be involved in research, and researchers to get involved in design it gives everyone the opportunity to expand their skillset and hopefully stops designers and researchers being pigeon holed as only being able to do design and research work respectively.

Should there be separate design and research roles?

So, given all that it perhaps begs the question – should there even be separate design and research roles within UX? In this modern, increasingly lean and agile driven project world (with its disdain for specialists) should there be a ‘Deresearch’ role that combines the two? (Note to the Oxford English dictionary – I used the word ‘Deresearch’ first). Well, the problem with combining the two roles is that what makes for a great researcher, isn’t necessarily the same set of skills and qualities that makes for a great designer. Also finding someone with great design skills and great research skills, is a bit like winning the lottery. Sure it could happen, but you’re probably more likely to get run over by a bus than it happening in reality.

Whilst I don’t necessarily advocate combining UX design and research roles, I do think that it’s important that the two roles have a lot of cross over. Ideally there should be a fuzzy line between UX designers and researchers, rather than the large fence like structure you see in some organisations. Designers should muck in with the research, and researchers should muck in with the design. Hell, the whole project team should muck in with the research and the design because ultimately everyone is responsible for creating a great experience for their users. Sure the lead designer should be steering the design, and the lead researcher should be steering the research, but the responsibilities and workload are shared across the two, and hopefully also across the whole team.

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