The beginning stage of working on a product is the most crucial one. This is the time when all of the big product requirements are agreed upon and a particular strategy is chosen. This is also when an initial idea develops into a working prototype.

The main goal is not to just make this prototype to satisfy the subjective feelings of the various stakeholders, but to make it work. A product prototype should be created for the user, taking the particular industry’s situation into account, carefully thinking over how the product fits into that situation, and creating it with an understanding of and responsibility to the product’s users.

In order to develop a really good concept, you shouldn’t rush into creating a beautiful layout and discussing color palettes and forms - there will be plenty of time for this later on. Good design is first and foremost a focus on how the product should work. This is the stage at which many questions will arise. Doing proper design research will help answer those questions.

“Customers always know what’s wrong. They can’t always tell you what they want, but they always can tell you what’s wrong.”

- Carly Fiorina

Design based on facts, not assumptions

While designing a product, the focus should be on who is going to use that product. Users are the main variable in every product’s design.

Every designer has a certain amount of knowledge and experience when it comes to users, based on the designer’s years of involvement and work within a particular development sphere. Clients bring in their own knowledge, based on long-term experience and interaction with other projects and activities.

But how does this knowledge fit into designing a product? Typically, the previous experience causes designers and clients alike to base their knowledge on a series of assumptions about what the user wants or what they need. Making assumptions is a good thing and doing so is a part of the working process, but assumptions can also be problematic when accepted as facts.

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Doing design research

Design research is what makes our approach to understanding users methodical and well-structured. It is a necessary part of creating a user-oriented design for a product.

In practice, the research is carried out by interface designers and starts with the introduction of primary solutions for a given problem. These solutions are then coordinated and prototyped. After that, they are validated on the target audience, they undergo some changes based on the feedback and, finally, the process is repeated to achieve the most successful result.

To conduct UX research, an unlimited number of methods can be used. These methods usually fall under the following categories:

  • Attitudinal vs. Behavioral
  • Qualitative vs. Quantitative
  • Context of Use

Different methods can be chosen for each case, but they all serve one purpose - getting answers for questions like “Who are our users?”, “How are they going to use the product?”, “Does the product work in the conditions it is going to be used in?”

“The computer industry has been able to ship difficult-to-use products because you buy first, and then you try to use it. With the Web, usability comes first, then you click to buy or become a return visitor.”

- Jakob Nielsen

Focus on the user and the competition

A user-focused approach to design research is different from a self-focused design. A self-focused approach often relies on assumptions and projecting your own behavioral model, taste, and preferences onto users to creating a working product. Instead, the user-focused approach helps develop a product through objective results based on how users would actually use and interact with it.

“If you want to have massive success with your websites and create experiences that resonate with your customers you have to figure out how to understand and solve the how much, the what and the what else.”

- Avinash Kaushik

Most of us are also familiar with the concept of competitor analysis. This is a standard term, denoting the process of assessing your competitors in the market. Competitor analysis is frequently used as part of the UX-design research process.

Competitor analysis provides interface designers with a way to:

  • take an inside look at a similar product that is already on the market;
  • assess the product’s usability in comparison with analogues;
  • assess standard user experience patterns that become evident in the field;
  • find problems and solve them to make the product better than analogues.

Competitor analysis is therefore necessary to:

  • realize who the main competitors in your niche are and how their product is useful for, and used by, the end user;
  • understand which niche works best for your product and what you can offer the user that other products in that niche do not;
  • generate ideas for solving usability problems and to improve current UI patterns;
  • study industry trends and the features of competitor products.

Often carried out in the initial stage of development, competitor analysis provides additional information to direct planning efforts and decide on product requirements. It is worth noting that competitor analysis is not a scientific analysis, but is actually a brief overview of competitor and product success based on a number of criteria. The criteria used should be approximately similar and relevant to the product you’re trying to design. Examples of what can be analyzed in a competitor analysis include template layouts, navigation, terminology, content novelty, etc. Conducting this research should result in a comparative table that assesses each competitor for each identified criterion.

Competitor analysis is a critical step in creating a competitive product. It is one of the most important stages in business strategy because it provides first-hand knowledge about what works for the user and what does not.

After doing this research, the possibility of making basic mistakes in the design process is considerably reduced.

“Innovation leads one to see the new in the old and distinguishes the ingenious from the ingenuous.

- Paul Rand”

Why design research matters

Pursuing innovation is not always the best option. There are far more cases that prove it is often better to stick to tried and true methods instead of trying to create something completely different.

Well-conducted research provides information about current users and competitors. It also gives insight into the latest design trends, as well as steady and stable UX patterns which should be adhered to.

The results of research done for one or more design solutions will give your project a competitive advantage and a far more developed understanding of long-term design strategy, significantly increasing your chance to create a successful product that users will love.

Do not forget to read our article about basic principles of responsive design and Practical advice on designing websites for mobile devices.