Great design moves the heart. It draws a user in. Smart data moves the mind. It provides insight to our true behavior and preferences. The ability to marry the two (data + design) becomes the most potent method of creating moving, powerful experiences closely aligned with the behaviors we desire. But many designers don’t understand how data enters the picture, and many analysts fall short of properly aiding with design.
In this blog, we propose user experience (UX) research as a solution for bridging the gap between data and design. We highlight UX research methodologies and show their practical application and benefits as they are applied to the UX design process.
The field of user experience continually progresses as practitioners advance their methodologies and push the boundaries of UX. Through this process, we’ve observed that great UX teams bridge the gap between data and design by appropriately integrating research into the design process. The synergies created when research and design work together enable the transformation of data into effective design solutions. The trick is getting research and design to work effectively together.
Ideally, research occurs throughout the entire UX design process. However, teams often limit the scope of research because of the particular constraints affecting each project (e.g., budget, resources, timeline, and process). Furthermore, UX teams must evaluate these unique circumstances and prescribe a tailored approach that ensures the research is efficient and effective in supporting the UX design process. At Merkle, we use a UX strategy framework to help align UX research with UX design.
Through our strategy framework, we explicate the UX design process into four main phases: Discover, Synthesize, Invent, and Implement. By mapping UX activities across phases, we can better understand what research options are available and when to use them to support UX design (see image below).
Phase 1: Discover
In the Discover phase, we explore the landscape of the specific industry and gather quantitative and qualitative data to better understand the current experience across all touchpoints with the business. For example, in addition to doing stakeholder and customer interviews, we may expand the research effort by conducting usability tests on competitor sites to better understand the effectiveness of their tactics and gain insights into how we might deliver a superior web experience.
Also, we may deploy a quant survey to validate certain assumptions about customers. Regardless of which research methods we use, we need sufficient data to understand the audience, comprehend the experience, and support the strategy moving forward. In this phase, researchers and designers should work together as they conduct the research and identify actionable insights.
Phase 2: Synthesize
In this phase, the team works to synthesize learnings from the Discover phase and lay the foundation for the experience strategy. Research and design teams work together to transform the research findings into actionable insights through personas, customer journeys, user stories, etc.
Researchers analyze and present data in a way that UX designers can easily define the strategy that will guide the website design. UX researchers shouldn’t just deliver a report, they should collaborate in working sessions with designers and strategists to interpret insights and ensure the website strategy is supported with data.
Phase 3: Invent
The Invent phase is magical as the UI, branding, and content all come together to create the user experience! The process can be agile and iterative, and it should be supported with UX research. In this phase, the researcher assists the design team without stifling their creativity.
For example, a tree test should be conducted to modify the information architecture so it matches users’ mental model of how content should be organized across the site. Also, a prototype concept can be usability tested and designed in a rapid iterative approach to refine the design and ensure it performs exceptionally before it’s moved into development.
Phase 4: Implement
In the Implement phase, the project shifts to development as designs are coded, SEO is enabled, and analytics are implemented. As the site goes live, UX research plays an important role in monitoring and optimizing site performance. Researchers can benchmark and track KPIs while collaborating with designers to improve the site experience.
For example, in addition to using analytics to identify trouble spots on the site, a True Intent study can be deployed to understand why those trouble spots are occurring and how to fix them (see more on True Intent studies). And with a True Intent study, teams can benchmark and track KPIs beyond that of raw analytics data, such as ease of use, look and feel, and branding of the site.
Helping research and design work hand in hand
The difference between research and UX research is that UX research bridges the gap between data and design by strategically incorporating research activities within the design process. The key is to embed designers into the stages of the research process and embed researchers into the stages of the design process. By doing this, designers can use data to enrich the experiences they create.
As we’ve seen, the UX strategy framework acts as a guide to foster this kind of collaboration. In the end, it helps researchers and designers effectively work together to create the kinds of powerful, data driven user experiences that move both the heart and the mind.