User research: Why you should keep people front and centre in the innovation process

If you think you know enough about your user, you are wrong—Watch this webinar from the Innovation Acceleration Week co-organised by the Humanitarian Grand Challenge and the WFP Innovation Accelerator.

User research is the soul of the innovation process

We innovators tend to be overconfident about how much we know about the people we are designing for, such that we want to build and implement the project as fast as possible. The WFP Innovation Accelerator never discourages that passion, but we recommend researching into future users as early and as often as possible. The goal is to answer the two central questions: Are we solving the right problem? Is my solution the right way to solve it?

The fundamental difference between traditional project management and Human-Centred Design is that the latter engages the future users of your solution (pink figures) much earlier and more frequently.

Every life is complex already — your solution needs to fit in

User Research does not only look at the immediate user but it also takes into account the environment, family, community and other parts of their life. We need to recognise that our solution doesn’t exist in a vacuum; in fact, it falls within an already existing complex system that includes the user’s daily routine, habits and priorities, as well as dozens if not hundreds of physical and digital tools and devices.

“We need to recognise that our solution doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”

A recent example from our experience relates to a team of innovators who are developing a system dynamics modelling tool for government authorities. During their user research, they discovered that the government officials have massive distrust towards new digital tools. This means that even if the solution alone could solve the problem, having the government officials to try and use it can be a challenge in itself. This discovery from user research allowed the team to rethink the project and invest in building trust with the end-user from an early stage.

Starting your user research

We are on a hunt to understand people’s context, their most profound needs, desires and motivations — this can’t be done through a survey form or market research. Instead of looking at the scale, we are looking at the depth of data points and trying to answer the question of “how?” and “why?” — we are trying to solve complex human problems, after all.

During User Research, we aim to have in-depth conversations with a few people, instead of reaching for a large-scale, statistically significant insight. You don’t need to engage hundreds of people; recent research suggests that 80 to 92 percent of new concepts can be identified in the first 10 interviews.

“We have to be open to change, pivot, or sometimes accept failure and learn from it.”

Let me give you an example from our experience. One of the innovations supported by the WFP Innovation Accelerator is a ride-hailing app for pregnant and delivering mothers. The developers assumed that no access to safe transportation contributes to a large chunk of preventable maternal deaths. During their user research, they found this assumption is only partially true. In some cases, safe transportation was accessible, but due to the price, mothers still decided to cycle or walk. In other cases, the roads leading to the medical centres were not suited for a car, leaving only unsafe options for delivering mothers. The findings led the team to understand the problem in its full complexity and adjust their solution to specific use cases.

The bottom line: our mindset

User research is fascinating because it builds on three underlying principles of life:

  1. The world is a diverse place and so are people — we all have our different experiences, viewpoints and needs that influence our routines and life choices;
  2. It is impossible to know everything so there is always more to learn about a specific problem in a particular context, especially as an outsider;
  3. The more we learn, the more we can improve and grow.



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WFP Innovation Accelerator

WFP Innovation Accelerator

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.