How to design without a user researcher

First and foremost, this is in no way a recommendation to do any user experience design without research. Seeing as the word ‘user’ is in the job title of a user experience designer, they must be involved in the design process.

That being said, when working in a multi-disciplinary team, or perhaps even as an external consultant you may find yourself without a user researcher, whether by design or accident. What do you do when you find yourself in this situation? Your need for user input in the design process doesn’t just disappear because you have no access to an individual (or even team of people) whose main responsibility is handling the kind of research you need.

Research is a tool that helps you to gain a better understanding of your chosen subject, and when applied with care and consideration, can save you, your team, and your clients a large amount of time and effort.

So what steps can you take as a designer to make sure that you consult with your users to make sure that you’re on the right path, even without the aid of a specialist?

Catch up on previous research

If your team has previously had a research function, or have utilised an external agency for some kind of insight, these findings can be a valuable resource.

Firstly, you can help to narrow your focus on any future research that may need undertaking by analysing the paths that others have already taken. Utilising older research to build up a picture of previous understanding gives you context when you overlay future research findings and can help you to uncover changes and trends in your users’ behaviours over time.

Secondly, you can highlight the areas in which you have a lack of understanding of your user despite the work carried out before. If you can correlate the research required to an improved outcome — not only for the user experience but also for the business — you are more likely to garner support for carrying out that additional research.

Lean on similar insight from others

If you work in an environment with multiple teams working on different products or features, you may be able to learn from your colleagues’ findings.

Yes, your research is far more valuable when carried out in the context of your product with your users, but in situations where either the product, your user, or neither of those are available, then you need to look elsewhere to look for guidance on the path you should take.

If you can gain insight from other teams who have carried out research on a similar piece of functionality, a similar user journey, or have uncovered more about their types of user that intersect with your own, you should look to combine that knowledge with your current understanding to build a more rounded picture. Although this is not the ideal source of information, you can still use it to help guide you in roughly the right direction until you can carry out the research to the level you require.

Piggyback on other research

Again, this will tend to work better in an environment with multiple teams and/or research capabilities that you can reach out to. If other people in your organisation have readily available access to researchers, then you should reach out to see if they can help you out.

In my experience, nine times out of ten, researchers will be more than happy to try to help you to gain insight on the work your doing, as long as it fits well with what they are researching themselves. Yes, it’s a workaround that will need you to fly under the radar and avoid some red tape, but anything you can gain in relation to your designs with the right kind of users starts to provide real value and insight when compared to the approaches I’ve mentioned so far.

Never take this kind of help for granted, and never overburden another team’s researcher with everything you could possibly be looking to understand about your users and your designs. Be selective in the research that you want to conduct, pick the one thing on your biggest priority, only ask for 5 minutes or so of someone else’s research session, and always be on hand to return the favour in the future.

Conduct research yourself

If you’re not familiar with conducting research, this can be a daunting proposition, but there are many tools out there that can help you to gain just a little more insight than you currently have, and a little research is far better than no research at all.

This is not about you carrying the full weight of research on your shoulders when it is not officially part of your responsibilities, but simply making a contribution to gathering more insight than you had before you started.

If you’ve previously worked with a researcher and joined in with their research activities, how did you contribute to that process? Were you posing questions that needed answering in research? Then ask the questions that you need answers for on this piece of work. Did you build the prototypes to put in front of the user? Then keep making the things that you need testing. But what do you do when it comes to the research itself? These are the things that you can pull together to structure some research such as a survey or a usability testing session.

As I have mentioned, there are many tools that can help you in conducting this research, and if you’re not comfortable to moderate a research session on your work (which I think is never a good idea anyway), you can use unmoderated testing software. The Nielsen Norman Group have published an article on Tools for Unmoderated Usability Testing which focuses on software that you can use in the later stages of design, and also advises on when to use an unmoderated remote solution.

You’re going to need to do your research on what research method is the best fit for your situation and what you are trying to learn, and you’ll have to learn as you go.

Something is better than nothing

Although this article is about how to deal with your lack of access to a user researcher, it should be fairly clear by now that this should not be an excuse to carry out zero user research.

When it comes to understanding your users, something is always better than nothing.

Many times I have been tempted to rely on my experience and my knowledge of tried and tested design patterns to deliver a successful solution and experience to the user — in fact, I have done exactly this earlier in my career — and I can tell you that every time we have conducted more research into the work we are doing, we have gained a better understanding of our users, a better understanding of what they expect, and what does and does not work for them.

As I learned this, I would then argue the case for more user research at every available opportunity. If I was ever asked to just implement a solution without the insight that research would give me, I would start to talk in numbers to help the stakeholders understand it’s value.

I would say that my solution would be 50–75% effective in its goals (which, looking back, may have been rather generous and probably should have been no more than 50%). If you want me to build a better product for the users — and by extension, the business — I will need to talk to and understand the needs and motivations of our users, and only then would I be able to raise the level of quality of the product beyond that threshold to a level that both the users and the business should expect.

Originally published at on October 6, 2020.

UX Designer with over 20 years experience, specialising in interaction design and prototyping.

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