User research is critical for any company that wants its products and services to appeal to customers, help people solve their real-world problems, and resonate with their worldviews. But how do you sustain your innovation and insights over the long term?
Sustained innovation requires design thinking—the ability to understand not only users’ most immediate needs and challenges, but also their underlying concepts about phenomena in their lives and in the world. Design thinking is fundamentally strategic. Rather than asking how people might use a particular product, design thinkers ask, what are people’s broader goals and how can we serve those objectives? Very often the answers go beyond refinements to existing products re-envision the nature of the product itself.
For example, when I was conducting research with blind users at Uber, I operated on two distinct levels of inquiry. On one level, I wanted to understand the immediate pain points for the people I met and interviewed. People told me about difficulties they had using Uber’s app: flaws in the VoiceOver coding, difficulties navigating through the experience, information that they needed but did not have access to. These are relatively simple fixes, because they require only a bit of additional work with a product that already exists.
However, even as I was discovering these immediate difficulties, I was also learning more broadly about how blind people understand the concept of transportation. In this way, I realized that “transportation” is not a goal unto itself, but rather, it allows blind people to achieve other, more fundamental goals in their lives.
It’s obvious, when you think about it: people don’t usually take a trip from A to B because they want to take the trip. They make the trip because they have some reason to get to B. In the case of the blind people I met, “transportation” was a part of their lives that served broader goals of doing things with friends, finding employment, and achieving a feeling of independence. Their goal was not fundamentally to get around easily—but because transportation is typically so poorly designed for blind people, it was very often a major focus, even when the ultimate goal was actually something else.
Once you understand the underlying needs of your users, you can begin to think about your designs strategically and in a broader timeframe. You can (and should!) improve the designs that you already have; any flaws or oversights in the products and services can frustrate users in the here-and-now, and you certainly don’t want that. But you can also think strategically about what you can do over time to reimagine how you serve your users. In Uber’s case, I argued that the company needs to think about how to help blind people achieve and sustain employment, social networks, and general independence. This is not easy to achieve; it takes a culture of sustained innovation and a tolerance for the longer timeframe that such innovation requires. In the end, though, only this sort of insight and strategy can ensure success down the road.