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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Is doing user research first wrong?

Don Norman recently posted an article titled "Why doing user research first is wrong". In it, he suggests that user research to discover the true needs for a software project shouldn't be done after the project has already started. Instead, he argues, this kind of work should be done in order to choose the right project in the first place. In other words, once the project is funded and kicked off, there are diminishing returns on user research.

Why is this controversial? Well, the user experience/usability community has been lobbying for more recognition and for time to do user research, ethnographic studies, etc. at the beginning of a project to better understand user goals. Norman's article suggests that unless a business truly values these things enough to do them before starting a project, that these activities can serve mainly to delay a project. And a delayed project that isn't really the right thing to do is just a very expensive, highly usable, failed project.

But isn't usability testing important? Yes, but Norman argues that usability testing is like beta-testing; important, but designed only to find bugs, not to redesign a work in progress.

I think this is a positive development, in that I belive user experience and interaction design work is immensely beneficial to a project, but I have never been comfortable with this work delaying customer feedback in an agile process.

To fit in with Agile development, interaction design needs to find ways to be more incremental instead of heavily front-loaded. Norman suggests that the most valuable time to do some of this work is during the project evaluation stage. But because many companies don't want to spend the money before approving the project, it is often only after a project is kicked off that interaction design work is initiated.

Perhaps the sweet spot for interaction design after the start of a project is to create and test prototypes and mockups in parallel with development efforts. Designers can provide a steady stream of input to the development team in a rapid feedback loop.

Or maybe all of this is heresy, and Don Norman will soon find himself facing a mob of angry usability professionals with torches and pitchforks.

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  • I am trying to find a way to integrate my traditional waterfall (albeit incremental) process for UI design with an Agile expectation from the client - all software is 3rd party and agile and dependant on my team's putput. Aarrrgh. Can it be done?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:58 AM  

  • It can be done, it just might take trying and failing with some different approaches.

    I'd suggest starting with something simple, like just doing less initially, and showing more to the client in it's unfinished form.

    Paper mockups, or maybe something more interactive but low-fidelity. Check out EasyPrototype for some ideas on this kind of approach.

    By Blogger David Churchville, at 9:40 AM  

  • Will do - thanks:-)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:58 AM  

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