Most of the UX research done today is Tactical.
Tactical UX Research begins with the assumption that we already know who the users are and what they need from the product. That was established before any research started. Tactical UX research picks up from that point.
According to Jared Spool, starting with Tactical UX research is the wrong approach. We should all be starting with Strategic UX Research.
“What makes Strategic UX research different is that it is not focused on products. It starts with the experience of people.” —Jared Spool
Jared Spool is the co-founder of Center Centre and one of the world’s leading experts in UX. He’s been working with user experience and design longer than I’ve been alive. Last time, he spoke to us about how not to boil a frog.
We recently talked with Jared about his insights on the future of UX research. Let’s dig into why Jared feels it’s high time organizations start prioritizing Strategic UX research.
‘Strategic’ and ‘Tactical’ are terms that are thrown around in conversation day to day, so let’s take a minute to define what Jared means by them in the context of research.
When conducting Tactical UX research, researchers focus on the product. You’re thinking about whether a product can solve a specific user need. Your research questions might be:
You’ll notice a central theme in the above: the product. When Jared uses the term ‘Tactical UX research’, he means we’re asking the question, "Are we building the product right for our users?"
He defines Strategic UX research in a more fundamental way.
When conducting Strategic UX research, researchers focus on users' experiences, and not on the product at all. The fundamental question we ask in this case is, "Are we solving the right problems?"
As soon as you shift the focus from a product mindset to a user experience focused mindset, a whole new space for innovation and value creation emerges. Instead of optimizing your product, you’re uncovering opportunities to improve the lives of your users.
Now you’re asking:
You are now thinking about people as the driving force for your organization, instead of thinking about your product.
Let’s take a real life example.
One of Jared’s clients is a company that builds laboratory test devices for scientists and clinical use (we’ll call these devices science-y things).
This company is the market leader in making these science-y things.
They spoke to scientists to understand what science-y things they needed and built what people asked for. This basic level of informal, Tactical UX research informed them to build products they built.
Over time, user issues began emerging that the company was not aware of. Their products didn’t work together. Laboratory technicians found their science-y things frustrating to use.
The company never found out because they were only doing Tactical UX research. They were speaking to a set of predetermined users (lab administrators), learning about a narrow set of problems, and improving their products to solve those specific needs.
Once Jared started working with them, they began going into the laboratories and observing the scientists at work. The company realized lab technicians weren't using their devices the way the team had expected them to.
Users were making serious mistakes while processing test samples, invalidating study results.
Lab techs were analyzing and reanalyzing samples because of contamination issues.
Teams were spending hours translating results from one machine so they could be fed into the next machine.
They discovered frustrations in the lives of their users that had never emerged in Tactical user interviews because lab administrators didn’t know to share them.
By focusing on the actual experience of the users of the product — in this case, the scientists, lab technicians, and administrators — the company’s design and engineering team could see why the problems were happening. All they needed to do was focus on what these people were trying to accomplish in the laboratory, and where the products were failing them.
The flip side is also true: if you are not focusing on Strategic UX Research you are creating space for competitors who do. Whoever focuses on the big picture of Strategic UX Research will become the front-runner in their industry.
Let’s dig into why that is.
Tactical UX research looks at a small sliver of a person’s experience as they use a feature or product.
You may observe users during a usability test struggling to set up your new Slack integration, for example.
The focus is on making sure the product does what it's supposed to. We’re not looking at everything else in users' lives or learning more about their overall experiences.
With Strategic UX research, Jared feels we should be studying people as they go through their day. Observing them as they do different activities and mapping each person’s journey on a scale of extreme frustration to extreme delight.
What steps in these people’s activities make them frustrated? When are they delighted?
Adopting the Strategic UX research approach, we can start by asking, “How can we make peoples’ day consistently delightful? Which frustrations can we eliminate?”
Users have two kinds of needs: active needs and latent needs.
Active needs are needs that users can easily identify. We’ve all seen these ones—when you ask users what they’re struggling with, these active needs come up on the top of the list.
Latent needs are needs that a consumer does not know that they have. They are unable to vocalize these needs, often because things have always been a certain way.
If a scientist has always had a 32-step process to get to sample results, they do not think to ask for fewer steps. It has always taken 32 steps.
This doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t exist. By observing users in their natural environment, you can see these needs even if the user is unaware of them.
You’ve seen latent needs before. Anytime you’ve bought a product or upgraded to a feature that solved a problem you didn’t even know you had, that was because you had a latent need you never knew about.
Strategic UX research techniques make it possible to identify deep latent needs that nobody else has seen, including competitors. Because the users aren’t asking for solutions (they don’t even know the problem exists, let alone what a solution should be), teams can leapfrog their competition and provide innovative products and features.
Tactical UX research is reactive. Tactical UX researchers wait to be asked to do something — What does this feature need? Find out from users.
Jared said it’s like dry cleaning. You don’t think of the dry cleaners until you see a stain on your favorite shirt. Once they clean it and you pick it up, you never think of them again until the next stain.
Your dry cleaner is not a highly-valued person in your life. They’re just someone who is there when you need them, which isn’t that often. Most days, you don’t think about them. And if they close their shop, that's ok. You'll just find another. There must be more in your neighborhood.
That’s how most organizations’ leaders think of UX research these days. The UX research team is there when the organization needs them. Yet, most days, they don’t think about the UX research team.
That’s because Tactical UX research only deals with specific problems. It can only identify very narrow solutions, which become bandaids on the bigger issues plaguing a product’s poor experience.
Jared explains that Strategic UX research, on the other hand, is continually providing high-level value back to the organization. When conducting Strategic UX research, the research team is laser-focused on providing answers to the organization’s most important questions: What are our biggest opportunities to win over customers? What direction should our products and services go in next? What will give us a Strategic advantage in our markets and industries?
This is information the executive team and senior stakeholders need everyday. They come to rely on the strategic UX research team as a continual source of deep knowledge about customers and users. Research team leaders are consulted for every big decision because they provide clarity and insight into achieving the organization’s highest priorities and objectives.
They are no longer seen as dry cleaners, but instead as essential advisors.
Today, 90% of organizations spend all their time conducting Tactical UX research.
If you’re trying to grow the presence of your research practice, and more importantly the competitive standing of your organization, Jared recommends that 85% of your team’s time should be spent on Strategic UX Research, and only 15% should be Tactical.
Strategic UX research is an immersive exposure into the lives of people who benefit from your product or service. Once you’ve got that level of continuous exposure to your users, you’ve already answered many of the questions we use Tactical research for today.
Strategic UX research eliminates most of the need for Tactical UX research. That's why 85% Strategic is such a great way to go.
Jared is one of the founding members of the UX field, so when he talks we listen.
According to Jared, Strategic UX Research is the future of UX research. It’s how we build a practice companies truly depend on. It’s how we truly solve peoples’ problems.
It's clear that our organizations are looking for more from our UX research efforts. Tactical UX research only takes us so far.
If we really want to play a significant role (and be valued for the role we're playing), we'll need to become more strategic in all of our efforts.
Jared believes the place to start is with Strategic UX research.
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This article is the first in a series of conversations with Jared Spool about the future of UX research. To know when our next post comes out, subscribe to our newsletter below.
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