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3 Ways the Product Lifecycle Has Changed User Research

by
Amy Garrett
October 7, 2021
6
Min(s)

The product lifecycle is the virtuous (vicious?) cycle behind the engine of growth today. But how has it impacted the age-old practice of user research?

When acclaimed designer and teacher Don Norman said ‘Beauty and brains, pleasure and usability — they should go hand in hand’, little did people think the answer lay in user research and product lifecycles. 

Perhaps design thinking should be thanked for the renewed focus on user research. But today’s product lifecycle is rushed and market-driven. But several experts argue for more user-driven development. 

Case in point — the newly announced iPhone 13. Incremental improvements cut a gimmicky figure today. Consumers can tell they’re more the brainchild of marketing strategies than innovative scientists at R&D labs. 

But how can you really blame businesses in this age of whizz and flashbang? Users want their spectacle, companies want their eyeballs, and everybody wants freshly packaged value every year. But sooner rather than later, this unending circus of design and redesign will grind to a halt. But not before inflating balance sheets and employee workload to a point of no return. 

This is why design thinking may be the silver bullet the industry needs — especially the rise of interaction design. It shifts focus back to the user and what they want out of the product — paving the way for more sustainable advancement and development. 

So it comes as no surprise that mutterings are starting to emerge from the UX camp about the evolution of UX and how the product lifecycle has tweaked it. Here’s a look at the chief points of interest: 

1. Accelerated business timelines

More efficient, budget-friendly business solutions. Getting a product to market as quickly as possible. These are the laws design and development live by when it comes to project expectations — especially in the growth stage. 

How traditional user research fits into this dynamic has changed as more upfront, traditional audience and market analysis gets taken in-house.

Time and staffing

Businesses don’t account for “extras” when they head into an innovation project. As a result, positioning user research as an a la carte item to user groups is a risk. It’s likely to be perceived as an add-on that will push out the timeline, involve more resources, and incur additional costs.

Within the context of UX design and project discovery, however, focused user research for validation, can add real value — or at least stave off the decline stage. Determining which stages of the product could benefit the most from user research and the design process is part of a successful project discovery.

Complete Market Research

Enterprise-level and other established businesses typically come fully-loaded with their own target audience, competitive, and market data. In other words, their UX research is done and their concept is ready to plug-and-play. 

Sometimes businesses and their marketing strategies have access to so much internal data and strategy documentation that any external resource or partner struggles to process all of it prior to kick-off.

However, user research within the product lifecycle is more refined. Right from the introduction stage, validation and reinforcement of product and design is near-instant. As the product’s market share expands, its user-feedback and improvement loops quicken — something that helped Google Cloud trigger the cloud industry’s first ever stage of hypergrowth.

2. Emphasis on Design Discovery

But as UX becomes more extensive and sophisticated, we are seeing user research morph to retrofit into the larger design process. When the discovery process defines the vision, the goal, and road map, user research must fit in wherever and whenever it is needed most.

Discovery and Early Design Phases

A clear representation of the user’s perspective in actionable terms is crucial. A UX audit is an important step, and applies to businesses who have an existing experience upon which they wish to build and improve. 

UX audits could include user feedback, like prototype testing, to help pinpoint areas of user frustration, as well as provide design recommendations based on best practices. In a UX audit, other types of research are factored into design recommendations (e.g. current app store reviews, user interviews, etc).

In an ideal situation, all the boxes are checked with regard to user research, UX audit (if applicable), and competitive analysis. Actionable data informs great design, and great design creates products that can reach the maturity stage quicker than most. 

It is important to note that third party vendors, such as survey tools, often aid in the execution of design discovery research, alongside in-person, moderated situations. This is something that has been crucial to product and app development in emerging markets.

More In-Depth User Feedback

When user research is conducted during discovery, it helps in generating ideas  untried-and-untested. Here’s a look at  a few of them:

  • Focus groups (in-person, unbiased moderated situations) can get feedback using key screens and question guides.
  • In-person interviews completed in-house offer a more intimate, focused experience that can yield more detailed responses to specific features and design approaches.
  • Desirability studies document responses and preference to visual style options using word association and ranking.
  • KANO testing helps prioritize new or existing features and add new ideas to the backlog.

The validation of prototypes

But user research doesn’t stop with validating existing market research. If it did, it would only be satisfying a pure business objective perspective and not reinforcing the user experience, which ultimately drives behaviors that deliver on business goals.

Prototype Evaluation

Usability testing comes next. Think of it as back-end user research that can be either moderated with inVision or Figma prototypes — or completed in-person and in-house. Regardless of how it’s done, the information gathered in the prototype stage is hugely valuable to iteration.

Gathering feedback on the UX flow, not just visual style directions or high level features, is crucial. Common quick design iterations resulting from prototype feedback are copy changes, button placement and screen order (versus adding a new feature or changing the look and feel).

High or Low? It Depends…

Testing either high or low fidelity prototypes, with or without fully-executed visual design, will dictate what kind of data can be delivered through usability testing. Each approach has benefits and is often determined by the current stage in the product lifecycle.

Low-fidelity prototypes, often done in the earlier stages of a product design, offer a quick, simple entry point into user feedback. It’s more about ideation and gathering directional input before putting any real time and tech into the design. Users can make more broad conclusions about concepts and ideas.

High-fidelity prototypes, which are usually considered to be later-stage prototypes, also offer great value to usability testing. Being more finished, they offer a more realistic presentation of the product experience and elicits more focused feedback.

User Research: Focused and On-the-Move

The name of the game is efficiency and cost savings – and user research accomplishes much more than mere validation of past data. Whether a business is looking up at a blue-sky discovery, building a 2.0, or embarking upon a high-stakes project rescue mission, user feedback reinforces goals and enhances user experience. 

And with the evolution of project discovery, product management, and UX design, user research and usability testing have transformed into more fluid, modular aspects of the product lifecycle. But just how bulletproof this approach is only time will tell.


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