Does research = usability research? I don’t think so.Posted on by Laszlo Priskin
I often find myself in discussions in which people ask “what is the role of ‘design / user research’” or “how can ‘research’ support the product development process?”. In various discussions, it also often happens, that ’design / user research’ is mentioned as the synonym of ’usability research’. You can find amazingly well-crafted ‘101 guides on how to conduct usability studies’ and more and more organisations keep using those techniques naturally.
The phenomenon which suggests that ‘design / user research’ equals ‘usability research’ made me think. In the past few years, I was lucky to take various ’research challenges’ within Skyscanner’s Apps Tribe and in its Design Team. As our product grows, we face more and more complex problems. It strikes me that we need to understand the nature of human-beings more and more profoundly.
In this journey, Steve ‘Buzz’ Pearce and Bálint Orosz, two of my professional mentors at Skyscanner, inspired me to try out or develop new methods in order to reply to those fundamental questions that our travellers are faced with. This journey helped me in realising how diverse the world of ‘design / user research’ is and also helped me in realising that besides ‘usability research’ multiple other fields of research exist and they can also add significant value to product development processes.
Let me share with you a framework which I call the ‘Four Layers of Research’. It is actually more like a research mindset and it would be great to hear whether you can relate to it and also to hear what methods you use in the case of the below-mentioned ‘layers’.
The Four Layers of Research
1. Usability research
When building products, a highly important factor is whether or not people can actually use what we build. To illustrate… if they would like to move forward in our app, will they find how to take the ‘next step’ or if they would like to ‘go back’ one step, will they figure out how to do it? In this sense, usability research is all about making sure that the way in which we realised our solution is in line with what people expect and what feels natural for them.
Simply put, in usability research studies, we are not focusing on the question of whether people need the ‘Back button’ or not, we assume that they need it. The question we focus on is if, in the moment that they would like to go back, they know immediately, intuitively and without further thinking how to do that.
2. Valuability research
This area of research is all about understanding whether people actually need a ‘Back button’ or not. Valuability research could help a lot in validating or falsifying a solution we plan to build for our travellers.
‘Validating or falsifying’ and ‘plan to build’ seem to be key terms here. We all have many nice ideas on what to build for our users, but one of the most important questions is whether people really need that solution or not. In the case of valuability research studies, we consciously ignore whether our solution is usable or not, but we focus on the point whether our solution adds value and meaning to people’s every day life or not.
In other words, does our solution really resonate with our travellers’ needs, and does it really solve something valuable for them or not. Valuability research could be a powerful tool in the ‘product discovery phase’, more specifically at that stage before we start building anything, at that stage when we’re just about planning to build ‘something’.
Honestly speaking, for me, separating ‘usability’ and ‘valuability’ questions in research studies is extremely hard. In the case of prototypes, there are so many things that create ‘noise’ and makes it hard to identify what’s the reason that our solution fails in user discussions. The ultimate question is always there – did our solution fail to work because users don’t need it or because we created something absolutely unusable for them?
To overcome this stage, emotional intelligence best practices and the deep analysis of people’s emotions and mental state helps me a lot. Can you recall memories of when a user realised the value of a feature you work on and starts talking about it honestly and passionately? Shining eyes could be a good sign that you might have built something lovable (on the other hand, I try to keep in mind Peter Schwartz’s thought: “It is always worth asking yourself: “how could I be wrong?”).
3. Contextual research
There are two different types of situations that regularly come up in our product development processes:
- what are those needs of our users that they have not yet realised, but would really love if we figured it out for them?
- or we come up with new directions / new products / sets of features for a group of people and we start believing that it would add lots of value for them, but how could we validate or falsify our assumptions and how could we learn more about their context and their environment in order to fit into those naturally?
In such situations, it could be best to ‘live and breathe’ with those people for whom we would like to build ‘that next big thing’. It’s often mentioned as ‘ethnographic research’ or we can call it ‘contextual research’ as well.
At this early stage of a new product or feature seed, it could easily derail us if we don’t experience directly, but instead assume we understand, how the people for whom we plan to build feel, live and behave. In the short run, it’s of course faster, cheaper, easier and more comfortable to ‘imagine’ how that group of users could feel and behave. But in the mid-run, it adds lots of value (and helps decrease risks) if we jump into the context of those users and try to understand every aspect of their life and their emotions. In product development, we always refer to the importance of ‘the users’ context’ and to the importance of their emotional and mental state. The most meaningful way for us is if we just spend time amongst our users, talking with them, living with them and, in this way, obtaining a deeper understanding of them.
Being with them also enables us to understand them consciously. This is one form of what we call research bringing ‘people’s context in the house’ and opens up opportunities for product design to come up with solutions that really resonate with people. To be very pragmatic, contextual research can help you to understand how people live and what emotions they have and you may spot a need that leads you to design a ‘Back button’ (then test its valuability and its usability aspect).
4. Conceptual research
Have you ever found that you have a very fundamental question, everybody refers to it around you, but you never had the chance to spend enough time with it, go deep enough with it and to understand how it’s embedded in human nature? We love these fundamental questions such as ‘what is trust’, ‘what is personalisation’ or ‘who our travellers are’. These help us question the status quo by going deeper and deeper day by day.
To illustrate this with a tangible example, in the case of our trust research, we turned to respected professors and subject matter experts, in the fields of social sciences and behavioural psychology. We examined various concepts, tried to embrace as many thoughts as possible about the abstract notion of ‘trust’ and thought how we could apply our learnings to the world of digital products. Then we distilled our learnings into a practical tool we called the ‘Trust Map’. The Trust Map enabled us to analyse our iOS application through the lens of trust (based on feedbacks we captured from our travellers). In the framework of a workshop, we came up with various ideas on how to move forward. Of course, we had tons of ideas, but as we had those many ideas on a sheet of paper, we started to realise how those ideas were connected with each other and we could synthesise them into topics. Now, we had a ‘set of topics’ on the table and we think that if we further explore them, they can help us build more meaningful and trustworthy relationships with our travellers in a more ‘human way’.
So how did conceptual research help us? We translated this abstract substance called ‘trust’ into opportunities in our product. And as a squad or a design working group picks up one of these topics, they can start a focused ‘product discovery process’: do some contextual research to gather some real-life experiences, then craft and prototype solutions, test whether those solutions are valuable for users, iterate on them and if they are confident about the value of their solution, then test its usability. At the end of the journey, release and learn. And iterate and learn and iterate.
László Priskin, Design / User researcher at Skyscanner. László is based in Budapest, Hungary, working as a team member on Skyscanner’s renewed mobile app available on Android & on iOS. He started sharing his thoughts, because he passionately believes in the power of discussion. He thinks whatever is written above will be outdated in a few weeks’ time, because building products means that we inspire each other, criticize each other and continuously expand our ways of thinking. László is happy to get in touch with you in the comments below, on Linkedin or Twitter as well. Views are his own.
This blogpost is part of our apps series on Codevoyagers. Check out our previous posts: