August 2nd, 2011
Hang around me long enough and you’ll hear me say this:
Outsourcing your user research work is like outsourcing your vacation.
It gets the job done, but probably won’t have the effects you were seeking.
I usually say this when someone is asking me to do their user research for them. This is something we did quite a bit in the early days of UIE, but don’t do any longer.
Usually, they are asking us to do this to save time, because they don’t have trained folks, or because they are afraid of bias. All these reasons are rational, but there are better ways to deal with them than hiring someone else to do the research on their behalf.
As I said, I founded UIE as a company to do just this. I felt the rational reasons where why companies weren’t conducting their own research. I thought we could offer cost-effective, inexpensive research services to help. User Interface Engineering, in 1988 (it was our 23rd birthday yesterday!), was one of the first companies to make user research services available to other companies.
However, after working with hundreds of teams and providing their research, we started to looking at how effective we were. Were the teams’ designs getting better? Were they doing more research? Were they creating better user experiences?
We were sorely disappointed with our results. While every team told us they really got a lot out of our work, most weren’t improving their designs. They were appreciative of our reports, but hadn’t read them. They enjoyed our presentations, but weren’t really adopting the recommendations. And, most importantly, their culture didn’t change — they weren’t integrating users into their design process any more than before.
It wasn’t only UIE’s clients with this problem. We reached out to organizations using other outsourced user research services and discovered the same results. Hiring the work out wasn’t getting the job done.
We realized that we were missing an important variable in user research: the team’s direct exposure to their users.
When we take a team on a field research project, we introduce the team members to their users and having them spend time seeing them use the product and doing their work. In doing this, we’ve accomplished 90% of the work of the project.
It’s the exposure that changes the way people work. The same is true for usability testing or interviewing users. The direct exposure is the most valuable part of the project.
When you hire out your user research, even to the most competent of user research professionals, you’re losing 90% of the value. The research becomes a game of telephone, where the “away team” (to steal a Star Trek term) learns all about the users and somehow has to communicate back what they’ve learned. No mount of report writing or presentations can replace that lost experience.
Some UX service companies will tell you that they’ll remain part of the team, integrating the knowledge they learned into the design as the project continues. However, that creates an imbalance, where some people on the team know the users well and others have no idea. Those others, who will eventually own the entire design, are working at a disadvantage and won’t be making their design decisions using this critical knowledge.
This is why we now refuse projects where the team wants to outsource their research. We still do plenty of field visits and usability tests with our clients, but only if they come along to every session. If the client team isn’t there, we won’t conduct the session – there’s no point.
For the folks that think they don’t have time to do their own research: You’re better off taking the money you’ll spend on hiring someone and burning it in the back yard. You’ll get the same value in your product.
Seriously, if you want someone else to do your research because you don’t have time, you’ll need to dedicate twice as much time to spend with the researchers, extracting every little thing they learned about your users. Otherwise, you won’t get the value you paid for. It’s not a time saver to go this route at all.
For the folks who feel they don’t have the skills onboard: That’s an easy problem to fix. Training on user research methods is pretty easy. This is the bulk of our consulting work these days. We use a “Watch one, Do one, Teach one” approach. (We stole it from the medical training world). Most teams pick up the skills pretty quick and do a damn good job in just a few weeks.
And for those folks who feel doing your own research introduces a bias: You’re right, but it doesn’t matter. There’s always a bias in research, even when you get a third party to execute it. There’s nothing wrong with biased research, as long as you understand your biases and how to counter act them.
If there’s anything you can outsource, it could be participant recruiting. However, make sure you work with someone trained in UX recruiting, not market research recruiting. UX trained folks (we use Usability Works – they’re awesome!) know how to deliver the information they learn about your users in the process.
That said, you should even try to resist outsourcing your participant recruiting. You learn a lot when you talk to your potential users, even if they don’t qualify for the study. When you’re outsourcing it, you’re flushing a lot of great source material down the toilet.
Once you’re in the habit of doing your own research, you’ll never want to go back. It’s just too awesomely addicting and useful.Tweet