A sketch pad with some low fidelity sketches of an application screens with some rough notes

Large, complex and beautiful artefacts often have an immediate wow factor. In product design, a visually stunning interface or an elaborate design for a new feature can be captivating initially, generating excitement and admiration. However, as nice as this may be, it is not the goal of user research. It should instead be about surfacing insights and learning as fast as possible.

In the work that I do, I often create artefacts such as customer journey maps, service blueprints, empathy or ecosystem maps and more. In my experience, different people have very different expectations of what these artefacts should look like and the level of detail that they should have. I tend to start minimalistically, capturing information roughly on sticky notes on a wall or sketching stuff out on a physical or virtual whiteboard. These artefacts are low fidelity and are certainly not what anybody would call aesthetically beautiful but they are good enough for what they are needed for. I am sometimes challenged on this approach though.

One of my main arguments is about minimising waste and working effectively. I have seen far too much waste in organisations during my professional career, and if there is any opportunity to reduce it in what I do, I go right ahead and do so. This mindset comes from when I attended Red Tangerine’s Kanban System Design class with David, where I had many lightbulb moments learning about flow efficiency, feedback loops, bottlenecks, optimising the flow of value and more. I have been a big fan of Kanban ever since, and I keep these lessons in mind in the work that I do.

If I start off by creating beautifully designed artefacts full of bells and whistles, it will inevitably take much more time. This doesn’t just impact delivery time, but more importantly when it comes to user research, the time it takes to get feedback. The sooner I can produce an artefact, however rough around the edges it is, the sooner I can share it with my clients and my fellow team members. This can be the difference between having valuable discussions and making decisions in minutes or hours, as opposed to days or even weeks.

Another aspect is that when a lot of effort has been put into an artefact, there is often a psychological reluctance to then want to change it. This reduces flexibility in changing tactical direction should new important information come to light, which is the whole point of doing user research in the first place! My ideal is that the artefacts that I produce grow over time, with more detail and information added as more learned.

I often hear research being criticised for “taking too long”, “adding unnecessary cost” or “its too expensive”. This thinking is usually aligned with a more traditional mindset of project management and what user research is, where research is seen as a long project phase at the start of an initiative. Personally, the idea of working on something for any significant amount of time without delivering something of value for the organisation troubles me. My goal is to surface insights from research as soon as possible so that the organisation is better placed to start delivering real value sooner. This requires working iteratively and building up understanding in chunks, hence the approach I take with the artefacts that I work on.

The results of user research should be key for decision making. However, if the results of research or artefacts needed to drive discussions toward decisions are not available, it becomes a bottleneck in the whole process. Work to put something that could be of value out to customers cannot be started or it risks being ill-informed if the team is waiting for the refinement of detailed artefacts. It is about finding the right balance so that the level of detail is “just right” for the stage the product development is at. 

Breaking things into smaller chunks also helps to focus on one or two important questions at a time, such as to understand a user’s biggest need, rather than trying to do too much at once and risk making assumptions such as if I am asked to make a full end-to-end customer journey without the full picture of users’ motivations and pain points. This way, I can make faster progress with confidence that we are going in the right direction.

Which brings me to my last point. At every step of the way, while we want fast feedback, the quality of the work is never compromised on. For me, a quality artefact is one that is sustainable: it can be adapted and built upon quickly in changing circumstances, and serve as a valuable source of information and user understanding. I would take these characteristics over the wow factor every single time.

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