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How do you know what to build? How do you know it's right?

I had a conversation recently with analysts at a Columbus-based consulting agency regarding user research and usability evaluation. I was disappointed—but not surprised—to learn the agency didn't engage in either despite having a team of designers on hand. This isn't the first time I've encountered this phenomenon, and I wanted to put some questions and comments together.

Some Basic Questions

So, assuming a lack of user research and/or usability evaluation for a project, these questions occur to me:

  • How do you know what to build?
  • How do you know it's the right thing?
  • How do you know whether people will be able to effectively use the thing?

The client and/or product owner hopefully (but not always!) has a vision in mind, but how well-defined and realistic is this vision? How much research has been done? How many people have they spoken to about the product or service? Who are the competitors? If the amount of research has been minimal, the consultant needs to utilize their expertise in helping refine the vision by conducting some user research. It doesn't have to take a long time or be expensive (check out our user research cheat sheet for more information).

What if there's significant ambiguity about what's being built (there's always some)? Yes, the team can get together, ideate, and generate some stories. But are these stories anything other than assumptions if there's no data to back them up? So, take time to gather some data to help inform ideation/storytelling sessions.

In the midst of design, the team should take the initiative and conduct informal usability evaluation during the design sprints (or at some point that makes sense for the project). Just like gathering data for ideation/storytelling sessions, it doesn't have to be expensive in terms of time and resources. Formative sessions, with 4 to 6 users (actual users strongly preferred), and held over a day or two should provide enough data to ensure that the design is on course. Employ techniques with some level of rigor: Internal tests, 5 second tests, and similar techniques return questionable results in my experience.

A Bigger Point

We're the experts and shouldn't assume the client knows exactly what needs to be built. An interesting product/service concept needs to be developed, and we owe it to our clients to utilize the tools and techniques at our command. Part of this may involve educating the client (and perhaps internal people who manage the client relationship) about what needs to be done and why it will benefit the project. Instances of great ambiguity may involve forging ahead and doing the work you know needs to be done (sometimes it's better to beg forgiveness, than ask permission)!