A BRIEF HISTORY OF USER RESEARCH

A look back at where User Research came from and how it benefits businesses in a digital world.

To design and build products that are intuitive, usable and engaging, you need to understand the behaviour, motivations and needs of your users.

The job of a user researcher is to understand what users do and why they do it and then present these insights in a way that informs and guides the design of better solutions. A wealth of research techniques lie at their disposal.

In this post, we’ll look at where user research evolved from, key research techniques, and the reasons why user research should be part of the build of any digital product or service.

Where did User Research come from? 

The origins of user research lie in the field of Human Factors and Ergonomics – an area of research that first emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. Classic ’time and motion’ studies were carried out in factories to observe the work of employees and understand how efficiency could be improved.

In the early 1990s, the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) was published. This model proposed that the use of a system or product is directly affected by how useful and usable people perceive it to be.  In other words – if people think something is hard to use and can’t think of a good use for it, the product or system will ultimately fail.

In 1998, an international standard was published (ISO 9241-11), defining ‘Usability’ as the extent to which a user can achieve a specified goal with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction, in a specified context or environment.

Many point to 2007 and the first iPhone as the moment when User Experience or ‘UX’ truly was taken seriously. The original iPhone was a ground-breaking product because it provided the user with a far superior experience than any smartphone before it. Apple’s enormous success led other companies to see the value and importance of delivering a good user experience – bringing the importance of understanding users and designing for their needs into clear focus.

How do you carry out User Research?

At its most basic level, you carry out user research by talking to and observing users. It sounds incredibly simple – but surprisingly few do it.

To maximise the value and output from user research, a wide-variety of techniques can be used. Decisions over which method to select can be influenced by budgets, time pressures, research expertise, availability of users, the product or service being developed, and the environment it is being developed in.

Some of the most widely used methods include user testing, interviews, surveys, focus groups and ethnography.

Why you should be doing User Research

The benefits of involving users in the design and build of your products include:

  1. Reducing risk
    Testing ideas, concepts and designs with users from an early stage can help test your assumptions and ensure you don’t waste precious time and resources building a product that could ultimately fail and be received poorly by your customers. Testing early and testing often helps you avoid nasty surprises before its too late.
  2. Increasing user engagement, loyalty and satisfaction
    By gaining a detailed understanding of user needs and behaviour, you can build products that people love to use and that solve a real problem for them.
  3. Increasing key metrics
    There may be subtle issues lying totally undetected within your website or app that only become obvious once you’ve observed the experiences of real users. Fixing these problems can pay dividends in increased sales, conversions, registrations, and enquiries for your business.

Here at Userfy we specialise in designing and delivering User Testing, but we often use other techniques to support or inform our work.

Dr Sam Howard
Meet the author:
Dr. Sam Howard
Co-Founder and Director of Research at Userfy
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