You've probably heard that "he who owns the information – owns the world." That quote still holds the truth, especially when it comes to information about your customers. We asked Marina, experienced UX Design Lead, about the methods of user research she uses at Amazon to better understand customers, why you need to conduct URs but shouldn't be the one who evaluates your work, and the ethical barriers of getting to know your customers on a deeper level.
Marina is a UX design lead at Amazon leading the Device Services space for AWS IoT. She believes that design experimentation is a methodology that can help answer complex business problems. That's why her design work is grounded in tireless experimentation and relentless iteration. With over seven years of designing for complex enterprise products, she excels in design strategy, stakeholder alignment, workshop facilitation, low and high-fidelity prototyping. She holds a Master's degree in Human-centered Design and Engineering from the University of Washington.
WHAT IS UX AND USER RESEARCH?
User Experience (UX) is a methodology that allows one to explore different problem spaces and look for different solutions to those identified problems in an iterative and human-centered way. I worked on lots of MVPs. So to me, UX is also about relentless experimentation and putting yourself out there without any fear by constantly presenting your design concepts to both define the problem space and find the right solution. And of course, we can't get to the perfect answer without our customers. That's where user research comes in.
User Research (UR) is a part of the UX process and it's an integral part of the broader UX methodology. From generative research that we do to learn more about our customers to diary studies, competitive analysis, surveys, and usability testing, to name just a few, – we employ UR methods to help us understand our customers better and to have businesses offer the right solution.
WHY DO COMPANIES NEED USER RESEARCH IN THE DESIGN PROCESS?
Most importantly, user research helps us derisk go-to-market (GTM) as we validate product concepts and co-create designs with the users and stakeholders. It helps identify potential gaps and really learn about user motivations, needs, and wants. It also helps with identifying usability issues and fixing those.
WHAT ARE ALTERNATIVE METHODS OF GETTING TO KNOW YOUR CUSTOMERS, IF NOT STRAIGHTFORWARD SURVEYS AND INTERVIEWS?
I have done user research via less popular methods, like examining user logs, reading forum discussions, and testing with internal users who acted as our customer proxies. Those are still user research methods. They are just not as popular as conventional usability studies. These are great ways to get to know your customers!
FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE, WHAT USUALLY STOPS COMPANIES FROM DOING UX RESEARCH BEFORE PRODUCT/SERVICE LAUNCH?
I always did user research, either as a contractor or when working at Expedia and Amazon. I was able to advocate for its important role in derisking our products. But not having someone at the company with a user research skillset and perhaps being pressed by tight deliverable deadlines could be some reasons why teams overgo user research.
Also, if the company is not aware of the value of UX and there's no one to show the ropes, it might be why they skip this step. Tight deadlines, in general, might present as an issue when wanting to do quality work as a user researcher. Sometimes user research is more of a last-minute usability check and does not help answer fundamental questions about the product and problem space that we are solving for. It's one thing to test if someone can find a button and go through a flow in a seamless way. It's a totally different matter to determine what would be an ideal user experience from the customer's point of view and what they truly need, and start working backward from that when building a product.
1. UX for Lean Startups: Faster, Smarter User Experience Research and Design by Laura Klein.
2. Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights by Steve Portigal.
WHO ARE THE PEOPLE THAT CONDUCT USER RESEARCH IN A COMPANY?
It could be a designer or a dedicated user researcher. It's maintained that as a best practice, someone who did the design should not test that design themselves. As UX practitioners, we would like to stay as impartial as possible to the user feedback. However, I'd argue it's better to test your design rather than not if you are the only UX practitioner at your company.
I have also seen PMs do user research. And, again, I maintain that any research is better than none. Of course, a specialist will always do the best job. That said, I also worked on very technical projects like multimodal skills experiences within the Alexa skills kit and industrial IoT solutions, and it takes a while for someone to get up to speed with the technical concepts, so I had to conduct user research myself to be able to move fast with the launches.
WHAT OFTEN GETS OVERLOOKED WHEN CONDUCTING UX RESEARCH?
This is a great question! It's easy to get wrapped up in usability testing and prototypes rather than remembering to always think about bigger business goals and try to see if we are still answering our bigger business questions and derisking that go-to-market strategy. So it's not as much about users finding a button and clicking on it. But more about what they are looking for in this product and how we can help bring that to them.
In my last user research initiative, I asked customers what they thought would be the best solution to their problem, and only after a thorough discussion, I showed them my prototype. This helped me to make sure I do not bias them from the beginning. It's important to remember the big picture rather than get lost in usability details.
Something else that I think happens a lot in user research. I've repeatedly seen that after conducting a study and doing a share-out, no solution is proposed. So everyone looks at the findings, then continues with their day, and that user research gets filed away, with no steps taken to address the issues. And it could be because there was no concrete solution proposed. And I do not mean some final solution, but an attempt to get everyone excited about the discoveries made.
If you bring a solution, something to react to, people are more likely to pay attention, contribute their thoughts and prioritize that work. If someone just shares findings, that's not good enough, and unfortunately, this happens a lot. As a designer, I always put a mock together to propose a new direction. It can be a sketch or idea that will keep others excited about working on the issues discovered.
HOW DOES UX RESEARCH LOOK LIKE IN AMAZON WEB SERVICES (AWS)?
AWS is huge, with so many organizations and teams, and I'd imagine with different levels of maturity in product and design thinking. Our broader IoT team has had some dedicated researchers for a few years. However, my area (device services) has so far mainly relied on designers doing the research.
As a designer, I try to incorporate research at all stages when possible. I do generative research to learn more about customer needs and wants, and I do usability testing through the product development lifecycle.
Our user researchers started a very important initiative of creating personas mostly unique to our specific industrial IoT area and their user journeys, rather than relying on the generic AWS personas, and that has been very helpful. I also do the same when working in the device services space. I create personas, their goals, pain points, and opportunities very specific to my projects.
WHERE DO YOU THINK LIES A 'LINE' BETWEEN GETTING TO KNOW YOUR CUSTOMERS AND VIOLATING PERSONAL BOUNDARIES REGARDING INFORMATION PEOPLE PROVIDE?
We should always exercise an ethical approach when working with the customers. As designers, we have the responsibility to help our team identify what that ethical approach is. I guess it’s very product-specific and only people working in that space could determine where those lines lie.
As a rule of thumb, I’d always make sure customers know what information you are collecting and, of course, extra caution should be exercised when working with vulnerable populations. Taking HIPAA training was very helpful for me to learn about the best practices around ethical boundaries when working with vulnerable groups.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD COMPANIES CONDUCT UX RESEARCH?
UX research should be an integral part of any product development cycle, conducted as needed to move the product forward and derisk the product launch. When to do it might be unique to a specific product and team, as well as their deadlines and priorities.
As a general rule, I see the need for user research when we:
Particularly during the Covid Miro app has been incredible for brainstorming with others and running collaborative brainstorm sessions and design sprint workshops
I use Google Slides for presentations and brainstorming sessions
Figma has been very helpful when working with other designers, researchers, and writers - it’s great to be able to co-design in the same tool online and get quick feedback without having to send design files back and forth
FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR UX RESEARCH IN 202X?
I think as companies continue to adapt and grow user research functions as part of their UX practice, there will be more and more emphasis put on quantitative and mixed research methods. Also, as we see Machine Learning (ML) make its way into the companies and companies having access to lots of data, user researchers will need to parse that data and make sense out of it. So I anticipate designers and researchers having a need to understand ML and AI concepts and thus starting to use languages like Python and R, as well as collaborating with data scientists more and more.
I also hope to see user researchers be part of the regular product and design meetings. In my experience, researchers were much more siloed than other disciplines, taking projects on demand, and I hope that changes.
ANY FINAL TIPS FOR YOUNG DESIGNERS WHO ARE JUST STARTING THEIR JOURNEY IN UX DESIGN?
As you do user research and learn more about your customers, also focus on gaining business acumen and learning as much as you can about your company's business, including its business strategy and goals. This way, you will be able to create the most effective designs and have the most impact.