Designing for people should always involve research with real users in realistic situations. It's comfortable to slide down in the office chair, analyze remotely produced user data, simulate context of use and apply best practice, but it will probably not unveil a complete image of the user needs. A lab can never simulate how people actually live their lives. Instead I think observing people in their common environments is the first step to design usable products, because if we don't understand the problem how can we solve it? Ultimately, as a user experience designer, my problems are the problems the users have.
This article explains why successful research goes beyond quantitative data, and how it can help designers to discover moments that matter for the users. One advantage of understanding people behind the statistics is that you can make an impact on their experience based on a solid foundation of user opinions, instead of sending your ship in a new direction without a compass. That's why I believe that good measurements are strongly correlated with well conducted research.
Ethnographic research is an essential phase in the creative process since this is the moment when user needs and wants will set the foundation for crucial design decisions. On the other hand, theory is not always working in practice, so in my opinion the best way to make the most out of ethnography is to make broad studies with many participants and loose requirements as outcome. Because, hopefully this will lead designers in the right direction, but leave space for evolutionary development in an iterative testing phase where actual users have the opportunity to contribute with important input to the decision makers.
User research is a great way to define a base for decision making, reduce risks and adjust the design compass early in a creative process. But for many companies this phase is something unfamiliar, and it requires a lot of resources, social skills and planning... If you don't decide to conduct it remotely by using a modern web service like Usabilla. It's cheap, fast and easy to learn. Be careful though, all user segments won't be able to express themselves completely transparent online and emotional responses will be limited. But for the right projects, sure I think remote user research can be a valuable complement to in-person data gathering regarding both quantity and efficiency. Here is an easy to read set of guidelines in order to get the most out of it.
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