Anyone who believes in the value of rigorous research should be willing to listen to contrarians – those who challenge the value of researching customers’ wants and needs. I did so recently when I listened to an episode of the Podcast Breakfast Club, “Is User Research Important?” The episode made me stop and think about how research is perceived in our industry, and I was compelled to articulate my passion for the discipline.

The podcasters, Jake Knapp and Jonathan Courtney, typically start each podcast with one of them posing a question, and one of them replying. And I disagreed strongly with the reply to “Is User Research Important?”

The Question

For context, here is how the podcasters teed up the question (I’ve edited the content for brevity):

Where do good ideas come from? . . . good innovative products? Do they come from doing exhaustive customer research talking to people . . . or do they come from the insights that people in business have?

The Opinion

And here is how they answered the question:

I want to say that they come from doing research and from really understanding customers, but I think quite often they actually come from people just having an insight — someone who knows a lot about a technology saying, “I think that there is something really cool we could do with this technology, and I think we should do it.” A lot of those ideas fail . . . but I think where the magic really happens and if you look at the products that we all use every day, the products that are success stories . . . what happened was somebody had an insight, and then they were able to figure out how to take that idea about a technology or a new business model or new service model, and then they were able to figure out how to really make it fit well with the customer.

They cited Airbnb as an example of a brilliant idea that bypassed research:

They had this idea for a home sharing thing that honestly when I first heard about it, it sounded a bit creepy . . . they had to figure out how to build that bridge and they did it by taking their crazy idea and their sort of insight into the business into the service and what was possible with technology — and then they like figured out how do we make this fit the customer. But it’s like insight or inspiration or the opportunity first and then figuring out how do we make it fit . . .

My Response

I agree with them on the idea of starting with an insight or inspiration and then figuring out how to make a new idea fit. But I would argue that those insights and inspirations come from research. And the most compelling ideas come from the exhaustive design research that the podcasters dismissed.

The podcasters assert that a team can go without research so long as you start with an insight/inspiration. But where do insights come from? If an insight is an understanding of something that is backed by an observation or proof, then by definition if you have an insight, then you have made observations. If Jake and Jonathan were instructing listeners to start with assumptions, then you would not need any proof or evidence. But since they suggest starting with an insight, then it must be noted that you need research to inform the insight. You need to be informed. But you need to take the time to be informed.

Another Look at Airbnb

Perhaps what they are trying to say is that some observations are good, but you don’t need to do exhaustive research to come up with tomorrow’s greatest idea. As I noted, Jake and Jonathan point to AirBnB as an example of a company that emerged from what I will call a “research-free” approach. I looked further into the Airbnb example. As discussed in many news media sources such as Airbnb, the site was launched after the founders could not afford the rent for their loft apartment in San Francisco in 2007. They decided to make a few dollars putting an air mattress in their living room and converting the space into a makeshift bed and breakfast. Based on their initial success, they launched a website to create lodging opportunities for people needing a place to stay in a crowded market. Within a year, their business, Airbnb, was hosting its first customers during the Industrial Design Conference.

When you study the details of the experiences of the founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, you see that they performed exhaustive research despite what the podcasters say. They:

  • Surveyed the marketplace (when Joe was hunting for an apartment because he was understanding rental challenges of San Francisco).
  • Gained first-hand experience through an adjacent product/service offering (when Joe found his apartment and committed to the rental).
  • Gained first-hand experience through personal immersions (when Joe was staying at other peoples’ apartments).
  • Transformed their personal space into research stimuli (when they used their own apartment to be their rental unit).
  • Immersed themselves in the customer’s (when they were the hosts).
  • Adopt the professional ideology of their customers (their initial customers were designers just like them — so they could understand the unique needs when travelling to a design conference).
  • Devoted extensive time learning from the customer (when they didn’t limit their interaction with their customer to a one-hour focus group but instead actually lived with their customer)

Insights come from observations. And I would say Airbnb is a great example of how to do some awesome, dedicated research to form an idea that is seriously disrupting the world of hotels. If Airbnb isn’t an example of doing exhaustive design research, immersing yourself in the context of the environment for which you are solving for and gaining empathy for the user, then I don’t know what is.

Yes. User research is important. And essential.

Ben Hillson

Ben Hillson

Experience Strategist