UX design is fundamentally about solving problems. We call a design "good" if it solves a problem elegantly, cheaply, usably, and so on. I think it's fair to say, though, that too little attention is paid to which problems need solving, which questions need answering. The interaction design practicum at Cooper U offers a slew of tools for solving design problems, but the really eye-opening parts of the course taught me to back up a step and think about how to find the right problem in the first place.
Over-focusing on design solutions is natural. Solving the problem is the fun part of the job, after all. Smart workflows, elegant wireframes, typographical brilliance, beautiful gradients, and clever CSS are the exciting materializations of great design thinking. Talking to people outside the organization is time-consuming and expensive, so intuition often substitutes for user research. But, as Cooper U hammered home, successful user-centered design has to mean more than relying on stale or imagined assumptions about the people to whom our design solutions ultimately matter.
A lot of design begins with someone asking "What do users want?" The temptation is then to go ask some users what they want. This frequently leads in the wrong direction; too often people don't know how to articulate what they want. A "disruptive" product is precisely that: something people didn't realize they wanted until they saw it, disrupting what they imagine to be possible.
A better question is to ask is: "What do users do?" This is where user research comes in. Users have ingrained mental models, habits, rituals, and idiosyncrasies. Finding the patterns is key to finding the right problems to solve.
At Cooper U, we practiced observing and describing and interviewing and categorizing users. Here's what I learned: useful user research is difficult, draining, and requires practice. You can't just wing it. It takes planning, persistence, and the right methods.
In these past months, I've done real-world user research for a number of design projects. Every researcher develops their own style, but the good ones are tireless recorders and observers. They let the real world they witness seep in and reveal the behavioral patterns in real people. Only then do they try to figure out what users want, and crystalize these patterns and desires into personas. They ask the right questions, then solve the right problems.
Stop designing before asking the right questions. Design things users want. If you want to up your user research game and bring new user-centered design skills to your practice and organization, check out one of our upcoming Cooper U courses.