Why user research should be part of your design routine

If you design digital products and services you have to conduct user research. It’s as simple as that. But integrating this into a website development process can be a long and bumpy road. Especially for larger companies, establishing a user-centered workflow can be difficult. Our job at Valsplat is to kick-start or speed up this process. We get users involved.

Albert Heijn is our country’s biggest supermarket chain. We work with their online teams and their design partner Handmade on a regular basis. Over the last few years, we optimised an efficient workflow, suited to their specific needs. By continuously supporting them with research and expertise, we help Albert Heijn to make digital products that are clear, useful and fun to use.

So, how did we get there? Let’s explore why you should embed user research into your design process.

6 reasons for embracing continuous research

Research should be part of your routine at any stage of development. You shouldn’t wait until input is desperately needed, you should plan ahead. For Albert Heijn, we conduct a user test in our lab every month, no matter what. Here are six reasons why you should start a user testing heartbeat:

1. A lot of design needs a lot of testing

At big companies, the need for user input is great. Design and development is an ongoing process. The online teams at Albert Heijn work in short sprints and come up with a new ideas or designs every other week or so. By sticking to a strict rhythm of research all teams can be sure their work will eventually be included in a user test.

2. Continous research fits an iterative workflow

If something doesn’t work the first time, you can design a better version and try again in the next round of testing. Conducting research on a regular basis helps to see if you’re on the right track. Whether it’s about finding out whether a new product meets existing user needs, or about validating that users no longer face certain usability issues, user testing shows you the way to go.

3. You’ll maintain a fresh perspective

User research keeps the members of the project team in touch with the people they make things for. They get a fresh look at their work on a regular basis. This is important, since being familiar with a product can cause blind spots.

We often see designers, product owners, developers and stakeholders bring their own ideas and assumptions to the table, resulting in endless discussions. Testing early and often can prevent this, and it can save a lot of time and money.

4. It forces you to finish stuff

Having fixed dates for user tests means the designers have extra deadlines. This is a good thing, as it forces them to make design decisions. Whether these decisions are right or wrong doesn’t even matter that much, we’ll find out along the way.

5. It supports design for experience

A user test is not about finding out whether or not your users like your designs. It’s about finding out how people experience your product, and whether it adds value to their personal lives. Conducting user research forces designers to think about flows and customer journeys instead of singular screens.

6. Planning ahead is practical

We can book our labs, recruit participants on time, and guarantee that we’ll put the right team on the job. Our UX specialists working on the project should be familiar with the clients’ products, project team, customers and business goals. This will definitely benefit the research and its outcomes.

3 things to keep in mind

Now we know why regular user testing is a good thing, let’s take a look at the conditions for optimally embedding it into your workflow. Three things we think are important, based on our experience with Albert Heijn:

Be flexible

We conduct user research on basically everything the teams at Albert Heijn come up with: websites, apps and services, in different stages of development. Research approaches include usability testing, expert reviews, online surveys, cardsorting and concept testing. Picking the right method is important. The best fit mainly depends on what research questions need to be answered. It can be different everytime.

The fact that we’re planning ahead doesn’t mean we know what we’ll be testing for the rest of the year. For each user test, we decide about subject, scope, method and participant recruitment just a week or two in advance.

Apart from structural, planned user testing, it should still be possible to conduct research on the fly. You don’t always need participant recruitment or a lab setting. We often visit a nearby Albert Heijn supermarket to do some guerilla user testing.

Move fast

Acting quickly is important when embedding user research into a design process. After each moment of user testing, the project team should be able get on with their work right away. No need to wait for a report or a presentation somewhere in the future, when everyone has already started working on other things. We debrief the project team right after each test, and send them a report with findings and recommendations the day after.

Keep your eye on the bigger picture

Inspired by the team of Gov.uk, we have our own piece of wall at the Albert Heijn office in Zaandam for collecting and displaying UX-related insights. This way, all of the teams can keep up with the outcomes of each user test. Putting findings and recommendations up for everyone to see is a great way of keeping customers front of mind. The planning for the user tests is also up on the wall, and teams can sign their projects up for the next one.

Because research = design

With the redesign of ah.nl in 2014, Albert Heijn aimed for a simplified, omnichannel experience, heavily focused on mobile devices. A lot of design decicions were based on user insights, gathered from all kinds of user testing. As of today, this is still how we help Albert Heijn deliver first-class user experiences to its customers.

Design and user research should be an integrated practise. You have to involve users continuously during your design and development process, and put them front and central to your organisation. It’s great that big companies like Albert Heijn realise this. We love to help them getting even better at it.

This article was written by Wouter Boer, UX specialist at Valsplat. Our blogs also appear on Medium