Of course, we know our users

Understanding the importance of user experience research

Alexander McIlwraith, UXC
3 min readOct 23, 2021

Sometimes I create things for myself. But, when it comes to user-centred design, that is about where “I know my users” without doing any user research ends. Beyond that point, without research, we are just guessing at our user’s motivations, desires, beliefs and attitudes. We may have some data — user profiles with basic demographic information they’ve provided. Or we might have analytics data on which we have built our assumptions. We know who our users are, but do we actually know their thoughts dreams, motivations and beliefs? What causes them to act the way they do? What do they actually care about? Without asking users these questions and hearing their answers, we are merely making assumptions.

I once asked an acquaintance of mine, who was an entrepreneur, if she would take a look at my CV and provide feedback. My purpose was to better understand what business owners, like her, were looking for, rather than making assumptions. I was not looking for a job from her, and, had she been in the industry I was looking to work in, she would be my target audience. I wanted to try and break any assumptions I might have that might cause a challenge for me when speaking with other business owners I was interested in working for.

Assumptions and motivations

I’ve often heard things like “We know what our users want,” “Our users just want to…” or “Our users don’t care about that.” These may be true, but what is the evidence for that? Unless we test our assumptions, we will not know for sure if this is true or not. Even if we have done user research for other products, users may have different motivations for using something new. For example, if I live in an urban centre and take transit, only renting a car when necessary, it may be less important for me to renew my driver’s licence. On the other hand, I might renew my health card because I don’t want a problem should I need a doctor or the hospital. Both of these are government documents, but my motivation for completing each task is different.

When we fail to test, we risk making decisions based on assumptions. Those assumptions may not even be shared by everyone in our organisation. They also may not be shared by our users. Trying to reconcile assumptions across the organisation can waste time and money. The problem is that we risk placing ourselves — our own perspectives, motivations and ambitions — in place of those of our users.

Users have different levels of knowledge about our product. Often when we make an assumptive statement about user desires, we are lumping all of our users under the same single “persona” rather than trying to understand nuances. In doing this, we group all our customers together, assuming the best (or the worst) of them.

We may assume that they are like our most advanced users, those may be found within our organisation who are like us. Users who are part of our organisation have an understanding of our products in a way that our external users don’t have. Because of this, they often do not represent our average user.

On the other end of the spectrum, we may assume they are not capable of much, which may frustrate our advanced users, and still miss the mark for our less sophisticated users.

The solution

The solution to this is, of course, continuous research. Our products change over time as we add develop new products and features. New products enter the market and technology changes. Being sure we understand how users view not only our own product, but what our competitors produce as well, can only help us. Being able to say “Based on our research, we know our customers want this” helps to build empathy with your users and dispel assumptions within your organisation.

Participation in generating research observations by those who are not on your UX team can also help to provide insight into your research data. It will help to gain wider acceptance of your research and will lead to greater insight. If your organisation avoids, either actively or passively, doing user research, you will need to find other ways to surface assumption busters outside of normal UX research channels — possibly through information your organisation is already doing.

If you find our assumptions were correct, congratulations. You’ve proved your hypothesis. Share that and pick a new hypothesis. At some point, you will find yourself breaking a false assumption.



Alexander McIlwraith, UXC

Feet in the clouds, Head on the ground … writing on user experience and leadership.