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Does it need user research for visual design?


What should you answer when you are asked if you do user research for visual design?

The answer is absolutely yes. But more importantly, the right question to ask is when do we do user research for visual design. As a visual designer, you must have encountered a situation that your client only give a short and hurtful response to your design: I don’t like it. And to the worse, the client wants to do a user research and see how people think about the visual. The result will usually turn into a subjective discussion about everyone’s personal preference and ended up, the designer will receive a lot of unconstructive comments which makes both the designer and the client frustrated.

User research is important for any design industry. The difference between design and art is that design is usually more functional than art. Having a function means there is always the user, whether it is for people to use it, to convey a message, or to encourage people to consume. Therefore, it is necessary for a visual designer to do user research before they start to design.

The purpose of the research is to understand the context:

For the users/ target audiences:

Who are they?
What is their behaviour? personality?
How do we want the user to feel/ experience?
What do the people like most or least? why?
Under what circumstances will they use/see the design?

For the stakeholders and brand:

What do they want to communicate?
What is their aim? objective?
What is their features and pain points?

The context is the core of your design

With the right context, visual designers then can begin to use their professional knowledge and skills to provide the solution for their client. Have you ever experienced when you see an advertisement or a brand that trigger you to perform certain actions as it has told you to? for example like seeing the sparkling bubbles on a Coca-Cola advertisement when you are waiting at a bus stop which makes you suddenly feeling hot and thirsty. It happened because the designer of that advertisement wants you to. The designer knows under the right context, what kind of visual element, images; dot or line or shape; colour, to use to make whoever interact with the design will feel or experience and then perform certain actions. This is not magic but is all about the knowledge and skills which are trained in years and let the designers know how to play around the subconsciousness.


The image above is an advertisement done by Memac Ogilvy Dubai http://designtaxi.com/news/398526/Coca-Cola-Ad-Reveals-What-Its-Bubbles-Are-Made-Of-Visible-Only-Upon-Closer-Look/

It is important to do the user research before working on the visual design but it is dangerous to do that after finishing a design. Without explaining the context, it is hard for people to judge the design and people who are asked about the design can only provide a subjective opinion. As they are not a visual designer, they certainly not able to tell you if it is the colours or the typography go wrong. Imagine before Apple, their brand becomes mature, who would have thought “future, high technology” can be presented in the white and silver tone of colour when back in the days, “computer or technology” were always related to black or dark grey.

"People don't know what they want until you show it to them."
Steve Jobs

Put the same logic to the digital design, it is always helpful to do the user research to test the interactive design, so you know the intention behind each step that the user performs on your product. For visual design alone, it is almost impossible to do research. But from the research result on the interactive design, the visual designer can then decide how to use the visual to encourage the users to interact as the user experience designer has planned.

Terms like user-centered design, user research have been a heated topic in recent years. This phenomenon has misled some people to believe that user research is the absolute cure for any kinds of design problems. Yet, I strongly suggested that research is meaningful only when the right questions are asked in a right time, or else the result could be misleading and it will become a waste of time for anyone who participates in the research.