It’s a common sight: office walls covered in sticky notes with labels like “frugal Fran” and “adventurous Adam.” In the past 10 years, there’s been a flurry of interest in this type of empathetic user research, spurred by fashionable design firms like IDEO and Frog. However, while this type of research, filled with persona and “empathy” exercises, may make teams feel like they’re doing valuable work, it actually does more harm than good. By elevating the impromptu self-reflection of users over concrete user-behavior data and behavioral science research, it’s actually preventing teams from looking objectively and critically at the viability of their product plans. Here’s why this type of design will die, and here’s what will grow in its place.
The opaque mind
In order to understand why survey and question-based user research is largely futile, you need to understand something fundamental about human cognition: we’re terrible at self-reflection. Most of our behavior is caused by factors out of our conscious control and awareness. A system in our brain, called the “left brain interpreter,” then acts as the master storyteller. It creates a narrative out of these events, complete with causal explanations for why each thing occurred.
If you’ve ever asked yourself “why did I do that?”, you’ve fallen victim to the left brain interpreter. The answer you produced may have sounded logical, but it was more of a convenient fiction than an objective fact. This is why survey and interview-driven user research, which focuses on asking people what they like and “why” they like it, is such an unproductive exercise. You’ll get answers, but they probably won’t be true. For example, users are likely to express their excitement for a new fitness product, and tell you about how they’re really motivated to get in shape. However, they may not have set foot in a gym for the last 36 months. Their behavior tells you a lot more about their actual motivation than their flattering self report.
What do we do instead?
So if popular user research tools like surveying and interviewing are counterproductive, what should we do instead? Two things: perform iterations and design products from a behavioral science perspective..
Iteration is pretty straightforward. Your goal in any project should be to release something as quickly as possible, so that you can get real user behavior data. Fifty people you interview can say that they want a social network for their dogs, but what they do and what they say they’ll do have little relation to one another. Build a quick version of what you’re trying to create. Release it. Distribute it. Look at the data. Are people actually logging in? If so, how often? Which features are they using? We care about actual behavior–not verbal statements about potential behavior.
Behavioral science based design is new to most people. Simply, it’s basing our product on behavioral science findings and principles. Over the past 75 years we’ve learned a massive amount about how people think and why they do what they do. It explains why Facebook is so addictive, why Snapchat is popular among young people, and how Instagram became one of the fastest growing apps in history. In future columns I’ll go into the behavioral science behind these successes. But, for now, the important thing to understand is that by studying the behavioral sciences, you can learn why people really do what they do. Scientific studies offer us a better window into the human mind than self-serving conjecture, which is why behavioral science focused designers will outperform classically trained UX designers in the coming years.
At some point we’ll look back and wonder how anyone ever built product with the unscientific practices of UX research and design, just as we look back on the folly of predicting people’s behavior from the bumps on their heads.