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How to Strike the Perfect Balance Between Using Your Intuition and User Research
A Dynamic Duo for Designing Exceptional User Experiences
Truly understanding what your users want and need can be hard. Sometimes you don’t have all the answers when you have to make tough decisions. Do my users actually require this feature? What do I call it? Does it speak their language? Knowing when to trust yourself based on your intuition, or realising that you need to learn more before deciding is harder.
You may feel that you don’t have enough experience, or not enough user feedback. Sometimes you don’t have enough time, or it’s simply hard to collect thoughts and opinions to make the right decision.
The hard truth is, there is no right answer. You have to use a mix of both research and intuition to create great products, but it’s not impossible. Intuition will help you to think broadly, and be creative with your solutions, and user research will help you validate these efforts, to ensure they are effective.
The insights you learn through user research are a bit like a compass. They give you a direction you should go in, and sometimes they’re correct, sometimes they’re not, but you’re the captain of the ship. So, how do you keep sailing forward, or choose another direction to pivot to?
As a designer, I’ve helped many companies shape their ideas. Starting from early-stage products which are still trying to figure out their solution and who it’s for, to corporations which fiercely compete against other mature products.
In small startups with low to sometimes no budget, it’s common to struggle gathering any insights or validation in our ideas from active users or prospective ones. This forced me to rely upon my intuition almost every day.
In the large corporations with established solutions and market share, you can also be forced to decide between juxtaposing information all the time. Should we do this feature? Is this worth our time given our position? Is the solution we’re working on providing any benefit to the customers we’re serving?
A compass can sometimes help us navigate these questions, and reduce the burden of feeling stuck. For a real compass to work, it needs to be balanced, so the magnetic needle is flat and able to give you a direction. And at each end of the needle, there are two counterweights which allow it to do just that.
For this analogy, your compass has user confidence on one side, which is based on how well you know your users and customers.
On the other, you have your experience and observations which you’ve learnt through the success, failures, and decisions you’ve made in the past.
As you learn more about your users and customers, you’ll naturally become more confident in understanding them over time. You’ll train your brain to habitually ask yourself questions that help to refine your product from their perspective. Thinking in their perspective is the core of what it means to be user-centred when building your product.
Your confidence is a feeling that comes from spending time with users talking about your solution, their problems and what’s important to them. Understanding that at the core, they’ve hired your product or service to help them complete a task, is a useful truth to help you ask better questions, and filter unnecessary information.
You won’t always have every answer because the people using your product are unique. But, over time, you’ll learn more and more about how they use your product in better detail. You’ll start to feel more confident in what their day-to-day activities look like, the tools they use, and the behaviours or patterns they take to complete those tasks.
This objective data is imperative to your foundation of knowledge and evidence in understanding who uses your product. It gives your compass the energy to move the needle, and gives you a sense of your true north. You should collect, refresh and continue to build this library of user knowledge over time.
But as we’re aware of, sometimes this needle struggles to point in solely one direction. We can be unsure at times of what to do with the limited pieces of information we have, and every so often we need to decide what to do next on our own.
Experience and observations
The other side is balanced and powered by your very own experience, decisions, and observations from the past. This is what your intuition is made from. It’s a feeling that you can’t quite put your finger on, but it’s a sense of certainty that you know things are going in the right direction or not.
You might be thinking one of the two classic thoughts founders have which counter-argue this notion, especially when they start to doubt their abilities:
“I don’t have enough experience, let alone in design or UX to make a good decision. I’m not a designer.”
“Intuition is subjective, I don’t know whether I trust my ideas or know the best practices. It’s also not a reliable data source.”
Firstly, let’s set one thing straight. Everyone is a designer. Yes, you read that right. Have a look at any product team, every single person across design, engineering, data and product are making decisions on behalf of their users. Aspiring founders are deciding what overall solution and features are going to benefit their future users. By definition, they are designing. Of course, the support from dedicated designers will be helpful and bring skill to the table. But that shouldn’t stop you from utilising the lessons you’ve learnt along the way.
Secondly, your Intuition is based on experience, decisions, and observations as we’ve mentioned. This is in-fact data. It’s the learnings you’ve made from the small successes, failures, and feedback that you’ve had in the past.
So, how do we strike a balance?
Let’s break this down into a short-term answer, and long-term routines which make this process easier over time.
The short term
I’ve found that navigating the decision of relying on your intuition vs user research can be clarified by asking yourself some key questions.
1. How well do you know this domain?
If you’re an aspiring founder, or have only just started to work on your problem, or you’ve just shipped your first release, a data-informed approach to guiding you may be the best scenario. However, if you’ve spent a long time in the space you’re in, there’s a good chance you know how it works, and what the problem-space looks like for your users. Trust in your experience.
2. Has this problem already been solved?
Even if we haven’t solved the problem already, we can increase our user confidence by looking at the way other problems have been solved. What do those other designed experiences validate for you? Does it tell you that there is a market for what you’re working on? Does it show you one example of how to solve it? We can even remix our experience and observations from what good design looks like in adjacent products and experiences to create new ones.
3. Is the environment changing rapidly?
Similar to the first point, if your environment is constantly changing: such as the user-base, or your decisions regarding whom you want to target. Then a data-informed approach may be best, as in these scenarios it’s more difficult to rely on intuition of something which we haven’t yet developed patterned thinking on just yet.
To make better decisions which become easier over time, or feel more assertive to lean on your intuition, vs decide that more research is needed, you need to do these 3 things regularly:
Continuous research with your users
The founders who spend time with their users most are the ones that create exceptional products. Why? Because they know exactly what problem they are facing, how often they face it, how they solve it today and why their solution is placed to solve it for them. Try to spend 5 minutes with your users every single day, even if that’s reading feedback via an email.
Execute small decisions, and gather feedback
Try new ideas and execute them regularly whilst gathering feedback from your users. This will not only continue to build your user confidence, but it’ll build up your experience from the small successes, failures, and learnings that will inevitably come from this process.
Continue building observations
Spending time outside your space will help give you perspective on a considerable range of topics that you can draw observations from:
Look for inspiration in analogous areas which have nothing to do with what you’re working on.
Reflect on what you perceive the best practices to be from your favourite designed apps or websites.
Look at how other founders or companies are solving a problem related to yours.
As cliché as I know it sounds, you need to believe in your abilities and be bold. This is the core to strong decision-making, which is the hardest to do. These key questions and routines are muscles you’ll build over time, and will provide you the reliable data that compounds into a great intuition.
It might not always feel easy or straightforward, but when you start to feel confident, knowing exactly who your customers are and what they truly need, you’ll be able to make lightning fast decisions, and reduce the time to execute.
All the best,
Josh (@joshuanewton1) 🔮
✨ I hope this week’s writing was useful for you. Sharing this article with your team allows me to continue being helpful and continue writing. If you want to reach out, you can tweet or email me as I’d love to hear from you.
🗓️ Upcoming articles which I’m excited about:
Techniques for having more ideas
How to understand your user’s ‘why’
Help users understand your product faster with mental models
Weekly roundups - Impressive new products and bold ideas
Managing the stress of ambiguity
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