The process of developing and deploying software can often be a complex one. Because of these complexities, sometimes important things get left out of the process. One mistake that companies often make when launching new software is not properly incorporating user research into their product.
Sometimes, what happens is that user research is conducted, but the insights gained from that research are seen as low priority enhancements that end up in a product backlog when developers are unsure of how to integrate them into the product, said Jesse Taggert, director of research and design at software engineering firm Truss. When design, for instance, is just seen as something that is nice to have, while engineering and the more technical aspects of the software are considered critical, those design enhancements will always be deprioritized, she explained.
Organizations tend to pay more attention to user research when it has a clear business impact, she said. “When user research is linked to good product management and business objectives, it is paid attention to a lot earlier in the cycle, and that research then can inform development and it actually helps make better decisions,” she noted.
Good product managers can facilitate this connection between research and design. “When we’re talking about working in an Agile, user-centered way using continuous delivery, this role of product management become more important because companies and government agencies actually need to own their outcomes themselves instead of outsourcing them to vendors,” said Michael Torres, principal product manager at Truss.
Torres explained that product managers can come from all kinds of backgrounds, such as sales or marketing, and the skills that they should possess are leadership skills, people skills, and the ability to lead complex or cross-functional teams. In general, product managers need to balance stakeholder inputs with user needs. Once expectations are set, they will then need to work with the delivery team to deliver the product, he explained.
Torres explained that product management is necessary in order to build a strong and sustainable connection between research and design.
Another reason why user research may not be incorporated is that companies gather research and then forget about it. They may hire a research firm to come in and do research, and get really good insights out of it, but that research is too separate from the development teams. For example, a company might get a PDF report handed to them, and will file it away, and eventually it just ends up in the bottom of a file cabinet, Taggert explained.
When research is tightly coupled with the development team, that insight and knowledge will actually become part of the product. In addition, because development is looped in, they can also help shape the types of questions that the research should address, Taggert explained.
“It kind of gets baked into the DNA of the whole decision-making process,” said Taggert. “If you just hire someone to do the research and it’s too decoupled from actually moving forward and if the research doesn’t actually involve some design prototypes and explorations, you run the risk of it just becoming a report that no one refers to.”
And according to Taggert, research doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out process. Companies can gain useful insights just from talking to customers or users for two weeks.
Time can be an important factor when it comes to incorporating user research, Torres explained. “In my experience, if you don’t actually build something soon, based on research, it can feel like a little bit disconnected with the outcome,” he said.
The sooner you are able to take research findings and turn them into working prototypes, “the more real things become and the people see the connection between good research and good outcomes and showing them that helps make this process that we’re talking about happen,” Torres said.
If research and development are too disconnected, it can become overwhelming, and then ultimately, nothing happens.