What Proactive UX Research Looks Like

by Jared M. Spool

Proactive UX research anticipates the critical user experience decisions that a team faces. The team’s UX research effort uncovers sound findings and insights to ensure they make the best possible decisions for their users and customers.

This is in contrast to how most teams conduct their UX research today. Most teams react to questions that arise during the design process. Can the users successfully use the thing we are building? Have we designed this thing to meet their expectations?

These are important questions to answer. Teams often answer them through validation techniques, such as usability testing. However, they focus the team on one particular aspect of design: making sure the team delivers a solution that works well.

Of course, the team does need to deliver a well-executed solution to the users’ problem. And having a rigorous usability testing program will uncover where their execution isn’t working. It gives the team a chance to fix any identified issues before release.

However, these questions, and the methods teams use to answer them, only touch the surface of the users’ experiences. They focus on smoothing out the experience of a particular solution, whether it’s the best solution or not.

The most critical decisions happen before most research

It’s not unusual for a team, during their usability testing efforts, to uncover that a designed feature is the wrong approach to solve their users’ problem. Unfortunately, it’s likely too late to make dramatic changes, such as solving the problem in a completely different way. The course of action was set into motion long ago, and the team is now too far along to rethink the entire solution without incurring potentially heavy financial and political costs.

Choosing the right solutions to the users’ problems are highly critical decisions. These decisions require understanding the problems in-depth, and then evaluating multiple alternatives to pick the best-fit solutions.

The reactive UX research techniques teams employ, do not help them make these critical decisions. The important information from reactive research comes long after these decisions have been set in stone. Even when everyone can clearly see that they’d made a wrong choice, the team is lacking enough resources or political capital to roll the work back and start over.

Often, when these critical decisions are made, the UX team isn’t consulted. The decisions are made when the organization’s leadership sets its strategy, or during the impromptu horse-trading that happens when the product leadership formulates its roadmaps.

Even if there was UX research available to suggest a better direction for these critical decisions, the people making the decisions didn’t have access to that information. They subsequently made what they believed was the best decision, not realizing that what they didn’t know would come back to bite them later.

Proactive UX research gets in front of key decisions

Proactive research anticipates the information needed for the people making these critical decisions. Proactive research provides a deep understanding of the users’ problems, to guide the decision-makers to the right solutions. To make the right decisions, those decision-makers need to understand these problems in-depth, not at the surface level that reactive UX research typically provides.

The questions proactive UX research answers are different than those answered by reactive research.

  • What are the users trying to accomplish?
  • What problems prevent users from accomplishing their goals?
  • What does each problem look like?
  • What is the sequence of events that lead up to each problem?
  • Who are the users who run into each problem?
  • Do some users experience the problems differently from others?
  • What happens when these problems get solved?
  • How are users currently trying to solve each problem?
  • What happens if a problem doesn’t get solved?
  • What are the downstream effects when a problem isn’t solved?

The team uses the answers gathered from this research to paint a solid picture of the problem. They are staying away from potential solutions. Instead, they work hard to become the world’s foremost experts on every aspect of the problems their users encounter.

It is research like this that avoids the trap of copying competitor’s features without understanding what problems they’re solving. It’s not unusual for proactive UX research to bring forward an understanding of user problems that no other competitor is even aware of, let alone solving. It opens the door to delivering market-leading products and services well ahead of anyone else.

Proactive UX research requires growing research maturity

When we see teams actively engaging in proactive UX research, we see them using a wide variety of sophisticated research techniques indicative of a mature UX research practice. They use ethnographic techniques from in-the-field observations, (often called contextual inquiry or “deep hanging out”) to diary studies.

These don’t remove the need for reactive validation techniques, such as usability testing. They are still essential when the team needs to focus on whether a user can or can’t use the design. The reactive techniques help the team identify and remove obstacles in the design to smooth the interaction and experience of the user. But these techniques assume the implementation is the right solution.

Alternatively, proactive techniques are more exploratory. The team may not have a specific design to study. Instead, the researchers are observing the people who might use a future product or service, in whatever situations they’re in.

These future users may not have a product to use today. Instead, they are just living their lives and doing their work. During the research, the team is taking note of what’s happening, looking for patterns that suggest obstacles that a future product or service would overcome.

An example: managing store inventory

Let’s say a team is watching retail service workers during the day-to-day operation of their stores or businesses. The team’s goal is to learn about any problems the team could eventually deliver solutions for.

In their research, they might observe that there’s confusion around how inventory is managed at several stores. Digging a little deeper, teams might realize that every store has a different approach to tracking and managing their own inventory. These variations are creating problems with bookkeeping and keeping popular items in stock.

The team will then try to answer specific questions about these problems, to really get a solid understanding of what’s happening in the stores.

  • What are the service workers trying to accomplish when they are managing the inventory?
  • What are the business’s goals of managing the inventory correctly?
  • What does it look like when inventory is managed incorrectly?
  • What is the sequence of events that lead up to the inventory problems?
  • Who are the people who either cause or are affected by the inventory issues?
  • How do each of these people experience the inventory issues?
  • What did it look like when the inventory was managed correctly?
  • How are the problems with the inventory remedied after they’re discovered?
  • What happens if nobody discovers or fixes the inventory problems?

These questions will lead to other questions. As they research, the team will become deep experts in these problems. They’ll learn all the nuances and subtleties of how it manifests and what causes it. It’s with this deep knowledge that they can return their desks and start crafting potential solutions for their users.

Proactive UX research pulls back the lens

We can think of reactive UX research as a microscope that zooms into a very specific part of the design and how users interact with it. It’s valuable to look through that lens, but it leaves out a big part of the world. Only using reactive UX research will prevent the team from delivering improved designs.

To deliver those designs, the team needs to pull back the lens and take in a wider view. They need to look at the entire user experience. And they need to focus on problems before they dive into solutions.

This is critical if we’re to ensure that the most important design decisions—the decisions that lock us into the specific solutions we’re delivering—are made by people who truly understand the problem. That’s where proactive UX research comes in.

When we can research our users ahead of the critical decisions, we can ensure we’re choosing the right solutions. That’s how we’ll drive our team to deliver better-designed products and services.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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