What is Research Debt?

User Research Reduces Risk, So Why Do So Many Teams Avoid It?

· Customer Journey Map,UX Research,Research Debt

In the world of experience and product design, there's a strong tendency to "follow your instincts" and create a product you "know" will work. But in the end, the audience gets to decide - building products is a lot like telling a joke: if no one laughs, it wasn't funny.

The "A ha" moment

When inspiration strikes, the temptation to develop that idea into a product or experience can difficult to resist. More so when the inspiration or directive belongs to someone more senior in the organization, and comes attached to a deadline - often as not, an arbitrary one.

When we work with clients on UX and Design Strategy, we counsel a measured approach: work on turning an idea into a testable product, while at the same time conducting research into your audience's needs, desires and goals. Eventually, align the two: when you are certain that the product you've designed solves a problem people have, then and only then can you go to market with confidence that your product will succeed.

Objections to Customer Research

If you've been doing customer research for any reasonable length of time, you've likely encountered one or more of the following objections:

  • People don't know what they want
  • We have to show them something, if we're going to get anything useful out of it
  • We just have to get this to market, and then we'll see
  • People are bad at predicting what they're going to do in the future
  • Focus groups just tell you what they think you want to hear
  • We don't have time
  • We already understand the customers' needs
  • We can validate the concept when it's ready for launch

But behind each of these statements is a deeper truth: people with an idea - especially one they think is a great idea - are often reluctant to find out that they are wrong. 

Running Up a Debt

So, customer research is set aside. MVPs (minimally viable products) are developed, and put out for "testing" into a market that didn't ask for half-baked ideas that solve only one part of a complex set of problems. Product Managers and development teams are frustrated by ever-evolving requirements and User Stories that are detached from real-world Customer needs.

If you're understand the concept of Technical Debt, this will sound familiar: choosing an easier path now, in the hopes of getting to the "right" solution sooner, through intuition rather than research, accrues a higher and higher cost with time. The debt compounds: assumptions you had to make in the product development process ("users will want a product that does X") are much more difficult to unwind after a product is built, because they are entangled by:

  • Our natural cognitive bias towards confirmation: we would rather fit new facts to confirm old assumptions, or dismiss those facts entirely as irrelevant, than to challenge those old assumptions.
  • Product development complexity: features in a product are rarely totally independent of each other. Changing one often requires difficult refactoring of many others.
  • Pride: We've worked hard on this product, for a long time, at great cost. Admitting that we were mis-aligned with our customers' needs this whole time is a difficult pill to swallow.

Investment-Based Product Development

If creating a product in the absence of Customer Research (whether in the form of Ethnography, Customer Journey Mapping, or Jobs to be Done analysis) incurs Research Debt, what might the opposite look like?

Investing in the development of a deep understanding of your customers, their needs, motivations and goals, yields substantial dividends over time. Rather than focus development around the product concept first, you are able to focus on the Customer Need. Below is an example Customer Journey Map, highlighting the stages that a customer goes through in the process of finding a new gym to join:

A customer journey map describing the process a person might go through and the questions they would ask as they look for a new gym to join.

This Journey Map was Built with Paixon.io - Give it a Try, for Free

At each stage in the Journey, we can identify specific Jobs to be Done for that customer. If we were designing either a new chain of fitness centers, or perhaps even an application which connects people with their ideal gym, this Journey Map gives is a solid foundation on which to build.

It is a foundation based on an investment in understanding the customer's needs. Rather than a set of assumptions about those needs which we'll only validate (or invalidate) after bringing our product to market - and perhaps investing many millions of dollars in doing so - we have at our disposal a set of validated, well-researched and well-framed needs from the Customer's perspective.

Research is the Scaffolding with which Great Products are Built

Much as you cannot build any significantly-sized structure without a plan and the supporting elements around it, no great product can be built without a deep understanding of the problems which it claims to solve.

Products built without a strong foundation of User Research are just a house of cards.

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