When user research gets in the way of users

Tim Allan
4 min readNov 13, 2023

As a tool, writing up user needs is a great way to frame your research data in ways that teams (designers) can take action on. They are a fundamental part of the way GDS builds citizen facing products and services.

To make something new, to change something in your product or service, to kill part of it off, or double-down on one part of the experience — an understanding of user needs — an approach driven by research — explains what people need from your product helps you clearly find ways forward to address them.

“When designing a government service, always start by learning about the people who will use it. If you do not understand who they are or what they need from your service, you cannot build the right thing.” — GDS Service Manual

However, there are dangers in this approach — especially so when there is an over-reliance on one type of research. Likewise, there is also danger in a rigidity of your approach to the framing of the data, that forces data interpretation and understanding in a certain way.

When speaking to customers isn’t enough

Just speaking to customers — usualy in the form of semi-structured interviews- is often not enough. And to many, this is may seem slightly counter-inuitive, especially when the hallmarks of a user-centred design approach is to speak to users, to understand their perspective, especially in the context of the product of service we’re designing

Often what they say is never the full picture. There are many reason for this — far too many to go here. But users are very often unreliable witnesses to their own experience.

The issue here how is what users don’t say and what they don’t do.

In the rush of research and insights, it’s very easy to get drawn into the stuff you’re getting from your work — the qualitative data showing the user experience, describing issues, paint-points alongside moments of joy and success. That’s natural. However, this desire to mine qualitative data misses ,what Garfinkel describes as the “Routinized taken-for-granted world of everyday life” (Garfinkel 1967). The stuff that happens that many don’t even think is worth talking about.

This presented itself recently when I was running feedback sessions with UX Design students. As part of their unit, they’re required to analyse and synthesise qualitative data from research and use that deeper understanding to drive their design response to a brief.

In this instance, one student (they were not alone here) focused on one aspect of their research — clear and valid safety information about various tourist spots. In pursuit of this user need, the experience, in my opinion, had erred too greatly on the side of utility. “Our research shows this, we’re doing this” was how it was described.

Now this may be true, but what was missed, was by and large the un-met and un-spoken users needs, that were also going on. In this case, most people would be using this service like they would a social media channel lkike instagram or Facebook. There would be an expectation that users would spend a large part of their time simply scrolling through screens, looking at images of great places to go. And then stick on one that grabs their attention and explore. This contextual use of the app, born form an understanding of how users passively use the servuce, is often missed. It’s missed because users often don’t realise they’re doing it, and often won’t say it.

It was that passive browsing activity is what less experienced designers may not have realised occurs for a large part of the product’s user experience. By not understanding this wider context and through an eager pursuit of satisfying user needs, often this “routinized taken-for-granted” acts are forgotten in pursuit of obvious problems to solve.

The issue is that missing these needs, the ones that are taken for granted and often un-expressed, can mean you miss the wider context of the experience you are designing for. Placing too much emphasis on functional goals and problems to be solved, often miss other (and more important) needs because research hasn’t captured them. Often these needs perform executive functions across the wider experience — things such as establishing trust, feeling inspired and building confidence.

Jarad Spool refers to this as latent needs — users may not directly express these things but we need to make sure that we have methods and approaches, so we can understand the lived experience of the users we are designing for and with. This is the rich source of innovation and it comes from building up a deep and complex picture of our users. Without the right approach, a wide variety of methods and clear plans of engagement, research (and subsequent data synthesis — what we make of the data) can mask these latent needs. By drawing our attention to what is perceived as the most pressing, we may ignore the most useful.

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Tim Allan

https://timallan.io Fmr: Design Manager for clinical care @ Babylon. Fmr Lead Design/research in Urgent & Emergency Care at NHS.uk. RCA MRES