Don’t stop believing (in user research)

I’m having a hard time with Alex Schleifer’s (Airbnb’s head of design) proclamations in Why Airbnb’s New Head of Design Believes ‘Design-Led’ Companies Don’t Work. There are a lot of sweeping generalizations in the article, but I’ll focus on one specific part — user-centered design. First, this:

The solution Schleifer and CEO Brian Chesky devised actually deemphasizes the designers. The point, Schleifer says, isn’t to create a “design-led culture,” because that tends to tell anyone who isn’t a designer that their insights take a backseat. It puts the entire organization in the position of having to react to one privileged point of view. Instead, Schleifer wants more people to appreciate what typically lies only within the realm of designers—the user viewpoint.

So far, so good. It makes total sense to bake user empathy into the process and not elevate it to some elite role. Let’s continue:

Thus, every project team at Airbnb now has a project manager whose explicit role is to represent the user, not a particular functional group like engineering or design. “Conflict is a huge and important part of innovation,” says Schleifer. “This structure creates points where different points of view meet, and are either aligned or not.”

Ok, this is good too. This is usually the role the product owner or user researcher or UX designer should be fulfilling (if they’re not, something’s wrong). But if we need to call it something else to avoid stepping on toes, that’s fine. Let’s keep going:

Airbnb’s approach does seem fairly novel, simply because it deals with a problem that bedevils any product company to one degree or another: Designers tend to design for themselves, whether they intend to or not.

I agree with this, and have written about the phenomenon before in Designer Myopia: How To Stop Designing For Ourselves. But then the author goes on to say this:

User research, meanwhile, often has limits. It’ll tell you what’s wrong, but it only rarely leads directly to great products. A true user perspective is something more nuanced, specific, intuitive, and independent.

This is where he loses me. User research is not just usability testing that tells you what’s wrong. It’s also ethnography and contextual inquiry and participatory design and in-depth interviews and a slew of other things that result in exactly what they are trying to accomplish: a user perspective that is “nuanced, specific, intuitive, and independent.” As I point out in that designer myopia article:

We do ethnography to learn, not to confirm our beliefs. By using this method to understand the culture and real needs of our users, we’re able to design better user-centered solutions than would be possible if we relied only on existing UI patterns and some usability testing.

Leaving the office and spending time observing users in their own environments is the best way to understand how a product is really being used in the wild. It’s the most efficient way to get out of your own head.

I would love to know how Airbnb proposes that their project managers get these perspectives without qualitative user research, i.e. direct contact with customers.

Articles like this make for great “you’re doing it wrong” headlines, but they are often so light on detail that you’re just left feeling bad about yourself without knowing why (or how to fix it). So I just want to say, don’t let them get to you. Keep doing what you’re doing. Conduct observational user research in context, triangulate your results, and speak up for user needs. There’s no evidence to suggest that those methods have stopped working.