Making a case for rigour in user research

by Brian Moss - User Research Lead
| minute read

User Research is critical to successful service design. It ensures services are designed to the needs of users and without it, services will fall short of achieving their goals.  

As a result, it is integral that user research is not glossed over or framed as a ‘tick box’ exercise. In this blog, I take a look at the case for rigour in user research, so this doesn’t happen.  

Striking a balance 

User research doesn't occur in isolation, it’s part of a wider ecosystem of user and service contexts, as well as design and business requirements. It can’t, and shouldn’t, stand alone without the consideration of these factors.  

Success is created when one can strike a balance between these factors and the emphasis is on us as user researchers to find that fine balance. To oversimplify this conundrum is to view it as a ‘speed, cost, quality’ triangle - you can only achieve two.  

Formulaic or Performative User Research 

The danger is that user research within service design becomes formulaic (based on perceived norms and standardised approaches) or even performative – with the risk being that it loses merit, and with it the benefits it brings. 

Considerations for ‘rigour’ in user research can add significant value to the service design process. If our user research isn’t rigorous, what is it? 

We owe rigour in our user research to our clients, to the users we represent and advocate for, and to ourselves as user researchers. Of course it needs to align with the overall design methodology, be iterative and agile, and not slow down the process but this does not mean it can’t have rigour.  

A common challenge is the depth of research we have assigned to a particular process, and that such an in-depth user research phase isn’t required. However, what may be seen as ‘overkill’ or unnecessary, is critical to project success. Investing in the early stages of research and design is much more cost effective than fixing something that falls short of users’ needs and expectations. 

Introducing rigour 

To introduce rigour into user research, there are some key questions to ask: 

  • Does this research stand up to scrutiny from our peers? What might they do differently that we should consider? 
  • What are the industry standards? Are they fit for purpose? The ‘5 interviews per user group’ perception isn’t accurate, and standards need to be more robust to stand up to scrutiny.  
  • Has enough time been allocated to this critical activity? User research takes time with crafting questions, selecting appropriate methods, setting out plans and analysing data.  

Don’t forget – rigour in user research doesn’t necessarily mean finding absolute truth. Such efforts would be futile. Rigorous user research is about removing error and acknowledging the limitations and boundaries of the work. 

Such an approach should be applied throughout – before, during and after the user research process. Here are some things that should be considered: 


  • What practices are we bringing?  
  • What assumptions are we making? 
  • What are the objectives? 
  • What are our priorities? 


  • How are we defining our methods, approaches and samples? 
  • What criteria are we using the evaluate our methods?  
  • Are we adopting a critical mindset and a drive for continuous improvement? Are we challenging ourselves and our practices?  
  • The techniques alone do not protect from error, nor denote rigour. For example, the epistemological stance of the researcher, sampling and data collection, triangulation and validation, and analysis theory all have an impact. 
  • It’s important not to put distance between us and the data, especially when research is qualitative. Recognise our position within the work.  


  • Be transparent – call out limitations in the research. 
  • Recognise any trade-offs in the research. 
  • Focus on communicating research findings and narrative – to internal and external stakeholders. 

Trust in the journey and the results 

Rigour isn’t about validating user research or evaluating research methods. It’s about enhancing the user research practice throughout user-centred design. Similarly, we need to bring everyone (our design colleagues and stakeholders) along on this journey. They need to be able to trust in our research and take on board the results. By creating a working culture of transparency and openness in the project, this required trust can be cultivated amongst our stakeholders and design peers.  

Introducing and maintaining rigour in such processes helps to continuously improve user research approaches- to ensure relevance, effectiveness, and value for our clients and users alike. While user research is embedded in user-centred design, adding the consideration of rigour to our user research will support trust in the research results, create more valuable insight and bring longevity to our practice.