User research focuses on studying user behaviours, requirements, and motivations. Ways to do it are through research techniques, behaviour analysis, observation and other feedback methodologies. Mike Kuniavsky, a user experience designer, researcher and author further notes that it is “the process of understanding the impact of design on an audience.”
User research applies scientific principles to solve design problems. It does so by informing its findings to further develop current principles and guidelines. Designers acknowledge the depth of information and time saved uncovered by understanding the user’s mindset, and context.
In this article, we will discuss the classical approaches of research to understand the use side of innovation. The types of user research you should perform will depend on the type of product or service that you are developing, your timeline, and your environment.
The 5 approaches followed are:
- Diffusion research: adoption and diffusion
- Usability research: usages and appropriation
- User innovations: users as innovators
- Semiotic tradition: construction and interpretation
- Domestication research: conception and utilisation
5 influential approaches to understanding the use side of innovation
Diffusion of innovations is a theory that explains how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread. Professor Everett Rogers popularised the theory in his book Diffusion of Innovations; first published in 1962. Diffusion research explains the adoption and diffusion of innovations on two levels. The product or service can be adopted at a micro-level where adoption is done by individuals. Adoption at the macro level is where the solution diffuses into the society.
Different users based on their level of expertise and risk-taking ability adopts technologies at different stages of its evolvement, from the introduction to its full market penetration. Thus it results in forming five adopter categories based on their innovativeness. The following with the percentage of each user kind are given below:
- Innovators (2,5%)
- Early adopter (13,5%)
- Early majority (34%)
- Late majority (34%)
- Laggards (16%)
It undertakes a quantitative focus through surveys on technological innovation adoption. This approach is predominantly important from a commercial perspective. Diffusion research is dominant in marketing, business economics, consumer research and management.
Strength – It involves a lot of understanding and predicting adoption on a large scale.
Weakness – It is a linear-mechanical approach with insufficient insight on technology use in the everyday life setting.
The key scholar who identified usability research is Donald Norman. Its commercial roots date back to the 1970s when computers’ prices dropped and needed a user-friendly interface. Academic researches were conducted towards understanding cognitive psychology like attention, memory and perception. The concept of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) was introduced. Importance was given to the design, evaluation and implementation of interactive computer systems. Producers were concerned with making the UI pleasant, easy to learn and efficient to use.
The idea expanded that it deals with “everything that affects users and their interaction with the product” (Nielsen and Norman). This eventually includes the UI, the features and functions, services, and the marketing of a product. Usability research brought about the seamless merging of engineering, marketing, graphical, industrial and interface design to meet user needs maximally.
The aim is to develop knowledge about users to improve the design process of a product. The factors under consideration are human factors and ergonomics. Human factors and ergonomics is the application of psychological and physiological principles to the design of products, processes, and systems. Other factors include human-machine interaction, user interface design, interaction design, user-centred design or human-centred design and user experience (UX).
Strength – Usability research provides practical advice on user-friendliness in products, programmes and interfaces.
Weakness – It gives inadequate information on adoption and beyond interaction situation.
The researcher who studied user innovation is Eric Von Hippel. He defines the concept of user innovation. That end-users, rather than manufacturers, are responsible for a large amount of innovation. In order to describe this phenomenon, in 1986 he introduced the term lead user. He showed us that users could not only inform but generate innovation as well.
Producers seek to create models for innovation processes through direct input from users while making any technological applications. When users become sources of innovation, the use knowledge comes from lead users. Lead users are ones who are both qualified and motivated to make significant contributions. The motivation is the expectation to get high benefits from innovation. A qualified user is one who is ahead of the target market on one or more important trends.
Users ahead of market trends are nothing but the early adopters. Use knowledge can live within a user community, for example, open source. The use knowledge can also reach from the user community to manufacturers, for say, beta testing. Use knowledge can also be commercialised by user entrepreneurs, for example, the introduction of mountain bikes. Companies should always be on a lookout for use lead users for their solutions.
Strength – User innovation acknowledges individual user innovation. The concept of ‘lead users’ is widely adopted in industrial innovation processes making it an essential part of the innovation.
Weakness – User innovation only becomes significant when a product becomes commercially profitable.
The semiotic tradition explores the study of signs and symbols as a significant part of communications. Researcher Madeleine Akrich in 1992 introduced the ‘script’ or ’scenario’ of a technology. Scripting and creating a scenario approach deals with forming a framework of action of a user’s behaviour. The designers inscribe their understanding of how a technology will be used by the user, in the technology itself. Thus designers construct a particular understanding of how a product can be used and embed that meaning into the product when they develop.
Designers, therefore, define actors within specific tastes, skills, motives, goals and other prejudices a user might have. A large part of the work of innovators is that of ‘‘inscribing’’ the vision or predicting about the world in the technological context when it comes to a new product. This explains how an interplay between technology producers and users shapes innovations.
Strength – This kind of approach acknowledges the role of producers in creating use knowledge.
Weakness – Producer’s biased knowledge may tend to focus on how a user will behave based on imagination rather than analysing how a user acts in reality.
Roger Silverstone and Leslie Haddon studied domestication in 1992. Domestication shows how users redefine the use of a product or service after they adopt it in their context. Users shape technology or innovation over time. The idea is to focus on how innovation incorporates into daily routines. It deals with how innovation affects patterns of the domestic culture of user’s lives. It is a study of the conflicts between technology disrupting routines and routines shaping technology.
Strength – Domestication research focuses on the importance of context: nuclear or single person families, lower class, small & large professional backgrounds etc.
Weakness – Motivation of adoption receives less attention. It is very much focused on ‘home’ and less concerned with regards to embodied knowledge and technological change.
At graphility, we bring success to your solution by selecting the suitable approach to identify your target audience, its mindset, and preferred interaction.
Also published on Medium.