“Navigating the problem space” and “revealing user needs”: User Research and how we talk about what it does

As UX Designers and UX Researchers, we often talk about problems and user needs as “found”, “uncovered” and “arrived at”.

I was going through a guide on Design Thinking6 and the language used suggested that the process of design research is like going through a landscape1:

  • The Method will “put you on the path to continuous innovation” (Introduction)
  • “you’ll come closer and closer to a market-ready solution” (Introduction)
  • ”the energy and drive that you need to navigate the thorniest problems.” (Mindsets–Optimism)

A landscape is obviously independent of a single person who tries to find a way. That results are framed as preexisting, too2:

  • “…explore lots of different possibilities so that the right answer can reveal itself." (Mindsets – Embrace Ambiguity)
  • “…making something reveals opportunities and complexities that we’d never have guessed were there.” (Mindsets – Make it)
  • “…we quickly uncover what’s most desirable.” (Introduction)

This way of framing problems and research suggests that both problems and research results independently of us exist, somewhere “out there” and are seen from nowhere particular by an uninfluenced observer. However, this hides that people have a large part in constructing what they “find”, “uncover” and “arrive at”: The decide what and where to research and make interpretations of what they experiences, make assumptions and change them.

This could be framed as a bad thing: Do I assume that problems and user needs are arbitrary? No. I only assume they are (co-) created by the people who work with them, based on their observations and interpretations. This does not make them arbitrary. When there are multiple ways to do something, it does not mean that any way is valid and that any valid way is equally helpful in a given situation. And interpretations can and should still be given an account of why that interpretation is plausible, based on what was observed3.

Instead of describing our work as if we just bring to light what was there all along, we could highlight mutual sensemaking, interpretation and other aspects of user research and show how it connects the social worlds of people who build tools and services the social world of people who might use them later.

However, I understand that there are strong incentives or framing our research as “finding things out there”. User need research needs to compete with other methods that seem to show how and why our users really act. Researchers need to sell the advantages of interviews and observations. The framing as exploring a space and seeing the solution reveal itself makes it possible to sell what is real as well as making the research make immediate sense in digital economies where people believe that problems have technological solutions that determine our future4.


  • 4.4.2020: Alba Villamil, a fellow UX researcher, (linkedIn) asked me two questions, which I answered in a message. With her consent, I share them here. I wrote her my answers on twitter. The answers here are edited by me.

    Alba: What do you see as the benefits (for design output and maybe even stakeholders) of moving away from this positivist view of research to an emphasis on sense-making?
    Jan: I hope it has advantages that it (im my eyes) describes better what design researchers do. Also, the framing I described above has the advantage of being more design-like. As design (as in “I design a…”) can not meaningfully be framed as “about truth”, since it is about making something. Thus, sensemaking and seening-things-as is important 5. A single truth (as in “what something is ”) is not the focus of design (but multiple possible ways of “what something could be”)16. This design-likeness could be already reflected in the research itself already when refraining from framing it in positivist vocabulary (Aside from the fact that findings like “users need X” are hard to defend as single truth anyway). I hope that this design-likeness of research could help people to participate in it, make sense of it and criticize it in a meaningful way; all together with others and thus created a mutual understanding that is helpful in the next steps.

    Alba: To your quote: “When there are multiple ways to do something, it does not mean that any way is valid and that any valid way is equally helpful in a given situation. And interpretations can and should still be given an account of why that interpretation is plausible, based on what was observed.” How can researchers demonstrate the plausibility of their interpretations?
    Jan: I guess probably the same way as the demonstrate the “truthness” of their observations now: User quotations, descriptions of their methods and thought processes, showing alternatives and why they were discarded…


  1. Newell and Simon framed problem solving as search in a Problem Space in Human Problem Solving, 19727 . Given that Simon was very influential in design theory, this might be a factor for its use. Another interesting perspective comes from Zoë in container Technologies, discussing that the environment is often seen as passive 8

  2. Research as finding out-there things is a long existing view with a lot of surrounding discussion. Woolgar’s Science – the very idea9 (See Chapter 5, p.55) is probably a good introduction. Woolgar, who co-authored the influential Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts, also wrote some papers on user research 1011. For the “revealing” metaphor, Locke’s idea of a “veil of perception” and the concept of mental representations is interesting (though far removed from user research) – Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature offers a discussion on this 12 

  3. In my open textbook on user research, I choose to compared that there are multiple “correct” ways to analyze the same data with a metaphor of building a house from lego bricks and suggesting that “plausibility” might be a better term than a binary correct/incorrect: “There are many, many ways to stack up the bricks somehow—but only a few of these possible ways will result in something that can be plausibly called a house.“ (Source: Ch. “Doing the ‘right’ analysis”) 

  4. In academia, this seems to be mostly discussed under the label techno-determinism, though outside of academia “solutionism”, as coined by E. Morozov seems to be also frequent. A classic essay on techno-determinism and silicon valley culture is The californian ideology 13, I also found L. Winners writings on the influence of technologies interesting, e.g. Technologies as forms of life 14

  5. Framing and “Seeing as” is described in the material in Schön’s “The Reflective Practicioner” 15 

  6. The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design 

  7. Newell, Allen, and Herbert Alexander Simon. 1972. Human Problem Solving. Vol. 104. Prentice-Hall Englewood Cliffs, NJ 

  8. Zoë, Sofia. 2000. “Container Technologies.” Hypatia 15 (2): 181–201. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2000.tb00322.x

  9. Woolgar, Steve. 1988. Science – the Very Idea. Key Ideas. Chichester, Sussex : London ; New York: Routledge. 

  10. Woolgar, Steve. 1990. “Configuring the User: The Case of Usability Trials.” The Sociological Review 38 (1_suppl): 58–99. 

  11. Woolgar, Steve. 1994. “Rethinking Requirements Analysis: Some Implications of Recent Research into Producer-Consumer Relationships in IT Development.” In Requirements Engineering, 201–16. Academic Press Professional, Inc. 

  12. Rorty, Richard. 1979. "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature", Princeton: Princeton University Press 

  13. Barbrook, Richard, and Andy Cameron. 1996. “The Californian Ideology.” Science as Culture 6 (1): 44–72. 

  14. Winner, Langdon. 1988. “Technologies as Forms of Life.” In The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, Reprint, 3–18. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

  15. Schön, Donald A. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books. 

  16. Cross, Nigel, John Naughton, and David Walker. 1981. “Design Method and Scientific Method.” Design Studies 2 (4): 195–201.