Up-front user research is comforting because it hands off the responsibility of making decisions. Any time a difficult decision needs to be made, designers and product managers can simply refer to work that was done months ago (which is potentially now irrelevant). The research can act as a safety net.
If the product or feature doesn’t work out after launch, the team members aren’t responsible; they were simply following the research. But research can give teams a false sense of security–a feeling that they’re not making the decisions, that the research has predetermined what will happen.
Here’s the thing: In the best companies in the world, the companies that make the products everyone uses, a huge amount of the “innovation” comes from simply making assumptions, building something, testing it, and iterating based on real user feedback. Do you think that Slack came about after a lengthy discovery phase? How about Google Hangouts, Gmail, or the Kindle?
Ever heard of Amazon Prime?
As Brad Stone writes in The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon:
“In many ways, the introduction of Amazon Prime was an act of faith. The company had little concrete idea how the program would affect orders or customers’ likelihood to shop in other categories beyond media . . . But Bezos was going on gut and experience.”
These companies have designers, product managers, product strategists, and sometimes (if they’re lucky) CEOs who are willing to follow their gut rather than rely on parsing personas or digging through user diaries. Of course, the ability to follow your gut comes from experience, so if you’re reading this and starting to boil over with rage, please understand that this article is targeting designers who (should) already have enough experience to follow their gut.
So, am I saying that companies should just launch products with zero research? Nope– testing your assumptions with real users is an absolute must before releasing anything, especially anything very new. Every time I start work on a new product, I know that my team and I are making assumptions. No matter how sure we think we are, we’re always prepared for the user tests to destroy at least 50% of what we prototyped. But this creation and destruction of assumptions all happens within one to two weeks. Not six weeks (which seems to be a standard research package agencies sell) and not six months (which some consulting firms teach large, older companies to run).
The best product people need to be able to solve problems and make decisions fast. The best product people I know are ready to take responsibility for potential failures–you’ll never hear them blame the “research.” The best product people follow their intuition more often than you would think. If you’re just focused on not losing your job then fine, keep using research as a crutch.