Krzysztof Kaiser

Improving Product Design Process with UX Research

The value of UX design in developing digital products is no longer disputable, especially when we realize how good UX influences conversion rates and creates exceptional user experiences. Yet, when it comes to UX research, it is sometimes tempting to skip it and go straight to the design stage to save money which eventually becomes a trap. So, is UX research essential to your product design and development process?

In a nutshell, if you want to find the users of your product, make sure it fulfills their needs - the answer seems to be quite clear - YES. Also, numbers don't lie. Based on proper UX research and its findings, you’re able to create beautiful and intuitive User Interfaces (UI) which, according to Forrester Research

A well-designed UI can increase your website's conversion rate by up to 200%, and a better UX design can achieve conversion rates of up to 400%.

Is it something you aim for with your product?

Read more below to find out how UX research fits in the product design process, what methods you can use, and how it can improve your product. 

Table of Contents:

  1. Project Design as a Part of Product Development
  2. Product Design Stages
  3. Why Is UX Research Important? 
  4. UX Research Methods
  5. Benefits of UX Research For Your Business
  6. Let’s…research!

Project Design as a Part of Product Development 

Designing and developing products in the digital era is, in fact, a bumpy road. There is a need for constant balancing between trusting our gut instincts and taking advantage of data, especially since product development looks nothing like manufacturing physical items. While creating digital products, tasks can't be entirely repetitive, and there is no possibility to predict every activity; requirements constantly change, and so does the final product.

Product development is a trial to embrace these unpredictable factors in one unified framework (product design is a part of it) that ensures managers that their products will bring value to the potential customers.

As a crucial part of the whole product development, product design is focused on the creation but with business objectives in mind. While working on high-quality products or features, product designers have to find a compromise between business goals, technical possibilities, and users' needs. 

Great product design is delivering solutions to specific business problems. For us, it is about outcomes and benefits more than the pixels on the screen. Results are based on metrics such as conversion, retention, and bounce rate or on aesthetic qualities like professional, friendly, quirky, energetic, or colorful.

Photo Krzysztof Kaiser Krzysztof Kaiser Head of Product Design
at Monterail

Product Design Stages

The product design process consists of several stages (in various sources, the number and order can change regarding the approach) but is not linear. At Monterail, we have the following steps: 

image1-3

1. Discovery phase


Discovery phase is the kick-off step is focused on setting the vision for your product. During Discovery Phase we try to understand the business goals, user needs, and technical feasibility, to set groundwork and project milestones. This stage is meant to unravel the truth about your business and its needs.

2. Information and Planning


This stage involves creating a clear roadmap of your app. Planning the architecture and user flows will give you an organized and clear structure so that your users understand where they are and where to go next in your application. Information architecture is about organizing the ideas, knowledge showcased with the use of user journeys, site maps, user stories, navigation, and content.

3. Research and Audit 



Research is something like calling "checking" the vision. It relies on collecting data to determine if the concept meets the market's needs. Its ultimate goal is to find out what users think of the product's founding idea and validate the probability that they consider the product useful when it is launched. 

Later, data gathered during research are converted into valuable business insights and used to set the next actionable steps. It often involves creating data-grounded personas that could help visualize the customers' needs and creating empathy maps that help to visualize their actual thoughts. 

4. UX Design & Testing


Design is simply getting the job done. With data-grounded business insights, personas, and user journeys, designers should be equipped with all they need to create a product that mirrors the vision filtered by reality

Typically, the design stage finalizes with the prototype, which should test and validate whether the initial assumptions were right. With a prototype, natural interaction with customers is possible, during which some unexpected insights may come out and be used during the subsequent iterations. Usability testing can be done with various methods such as lab testing, session recordings, or guerilla testing. The whole idea of testing is to gather real-life insights, especially on what doesn't work with the product. 


Product design vs UX design 


Just a little remark to make sure we’re on the same page since product design is often confused with UX design. There are however some distinct differences between them.


Product designers' goal is to "fit" the product in the business guidelines, while UX designers focus on "framing" these business goals into user journeys.

5. UI Design & Branding 


This stage revolves around creating beautiful and understandable interfaces to delight your users, with a new digital product or revamping an outdated app. A design should meet the industry’s standards, with a brand identity to speak your values and unique selling propositions. Here, the previous prototype will turn into a well-designed and colorful app, personalized with your brand’s concept and values. 

GiveDirectly Case Study - Business Persona

Why Is UX Research Important? 

The ultimate goal of product development is to build and launch products that fit users' needs, so incorporating UX research into product development in the initial stages seems pretty evident. Products irrelevant to the user simply will not find any buyers. Good UX research will help you minimize the risk of bad investment by bridging the gap between companies and their users. 

How to proceed with UX research? Researchers can reach out for several methods of gaining insights into given customers' actual wants, needs, and motivations. Depending on chosen methods, data collected during the process can be used at every stage of product development. 

For startups and new projects, it’s crucial to concentrate on validating if the idea actually fits the users' need and it solves the problem. Methods that can help you achieve better product-market fit consist of in-depth interviews, concept testing, prototyping, and usability testing. For an established product with a strong user base we prefer to focus on a mix of qualitative methods and quantitative. No matter at which stage your product is, the research-based design can help you shift your focus to things that are really important for your users and limit your costs of development.

Photo Pawel Hawrylak Paweł Hawrylak Principal  Product Designer
at Monterail

Neglecting thorough research jeopardizes the entire product, as it dooms developers, designers, and marketers to rely solely on their assumptions and intuition. It is a very risky approach. In the beginning, when it turns out that a given feature or product is irrelevant to the user, it is possible to make a smooth pivot. With time, it gets more and more time- and cost-consuming. Involving your users in the product design process ensures that you base your app on real insights.

The methods that can be used at discovery phase are:

  • Stakeholder Interviews
  • User Interviews 
  • User Observation
  • User Shadowing
  • Competition Analysis

After gathering the user requirements, they need to be converted into specific business specifications and design a prototype based on them. It is crucial to work in short iterations, and not to get personally involved in defending one particular version but being able to adjust it according to users' expectations. 

The UX research methods used to validate and iterate the early designs are:

  • Wireframes 
  • Expert Reviews
  • Comparative Benchmarking
  • Participatory Design

Validating the earliest design prototypes ensures product designers didn't lose the users' requirements from their sight. Once there is a certainty that everything is on the right track, it is time to test the usability of the product. This stage of product development can prevent designers from making small-great mistakes, ie. the mistakes that are easy to fix but - neglected - cause great consequences.   

The research methods that can be reached out during the prototyping phase are:

  • Usability testing
  • Comparative tests
  • User mapping (empathy map, experience map, user scenarios)

UX Research Methods 

Interviews


Regardless if they are done online or offline, interviews remain to be an excellent way of finding out what drives the customers. Of course, the real value of an interview is determined by the "quality" of the questions we asked. To get accurate data, it is crucial to keep an open mind, not to presume any specific insights, and - foremost - not to try to convince users of anything. Nonetheless, it is good to anticipate possible variations of their answers and prepare the right follow-up questions. However, it is always good to enhance the value of interviews by pairing them with - for example - observation.

Observations


As said above, clients may not know how to describe their needs, so we should listen to them and observe their behaviors to detect the contrast between what they say and what they do. Observation is "actively" looking and listening. It requires directing attention to certain things, analyzing the information, and determining the significance of what we see. Observation can take into account asking while users perform specific tasks or just observing their natural behavior without interrupting. 

Shadowing 


Interviews paired with the most straightforward observations are not the end of the story, especially given the so-called Hawthorne Effect (this phenomenon pointed out that observed objects can change their behaviors depending on the observer's expectations). Here is where shadowing - the specific kind of observation - steps in. It is an active research methodology with the UX researcher joining the customer to perform activities in the natural environment. The researcher may restrict themselves from interacting with the participants or take a more active approach, for example, talking with them about what they are doing. 

UX mapping 


UX mapping method uses visuals and storytelling to illustrate a user's interaction with a brand. It aims to present the "journey" from the customers' overall perspective by pinpointing any point of friction and bottlenecks.

user story mapping framework

User story mapping framework 

Wireframes


Wireframe is a schematic illustration of a UI, used to showcase the allocation of content and functional elements of the app. Wireframes are essential in the earliest phase of design as they are not very cost- and time-consuming. They allow for a quick and easy way to test a design with users.

website wireframe

Example of a website wireframe 

Remote usability testing


Remote usability testing uses an online platform to record the screen of users to find out how they interact with your product and experience it in their natural environment, at home, office, or between places, on mobile. 

Benefits of UX Research For Your Business

User research will help you create an optimal product for users, and should be done at all stages of the development process. Before designing starts, research helps to understand the target group, find out a bit about their problems and validate the initial vision; while carrying out iterative tests during development, it makes sure that the users' needs are still in the center of the designer’s interests; then, after launch, research enables to measure the market success and analyze the ROI.

It would be no overstatement to say, it is an essential foundation for design strategy. Long story short, that brings numerous business benefits, such as:

  • Validating the potential market value of the product

There is no other way to check if what we think the customers need aligns with what the customers actually need than asking them. Users have no biases, they are not personally involved in the creation process, and the only thing they care about is the excellent product. Thus, UX research allows us to build something that matters and solve a relevant problem that people are struggling with. 

  • Eliminating the wrong ideas and correcting the course 

The sooner we exclude the ideas that don't work, the more money we can save. UX research allows us to detect and ditch underperforming ideas before they spoil the good ones and - eventually - ruin the product. 

  • Reducing development costs 

Upfront conducted user research enables software houses to significantly reduce the need for extensive redesign and redevelopment that may be necessary to fix a product when it turns out to miss the customers' expectations. 

  • Adding features that nobody thinks of but everybody needs them

While talking to or observing users, UX researchers can spot the blank spaces that need to be fulfilled with specific features to enhance the product. Users can be very creative and unpredictable. Simply said, you cannot afford to skip UX research, when you want to make money, instead of wasting them. 

Let’s…research!

Imagine what cars would look like if Henry Ford simply had asked potential users what they wanted - there’s a chance we wouldn’t be driving cars right now (at least such advanced machines). Steve Jobs, whose products were a real game-changer in the modern era showed a similar approach to product design and development:

Some people say, "Give the customers what they want," But that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do.

And - as following Jobs's footsteps is typically the dream of every entrepreneur - it is tempting to take it literally... and be crushed by the market. Jobs was simply a few steps ahead. Full of his quote is nothing less than the praise of UX research and establishing the customer expectations even before their "official" establishment. 

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