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

WFP Innovation Accelerator
5 min readNov 26, 2020


By ‪Andrea Kóbor‬, Innovation Consultant & Team Coach at the WFP Innovation Accelerator

The global pandemic has created the need and opportunity for all sorts of smart innovations to flourish. One example is an app that monitors people’s compliance with their quarantines. I tried one out during my quarantine after relocating between continents; however, installing the app on my phone already came with a massive challenge. The application — primarily developed for people arriving from abroad — only ran on locally purchased phones, and people using foreign phones could not get the app working. It is not a unique example of how a genius idea can fall apart, because of the lack of consideration of the users’ context.

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.

At the World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator, we support innovative projects that have the potential to disrupt global hunger and advance work towards the Sustainable Development Goals. When lives and livelihoods are at stake, it is even more essential to put people at the centre of those solutions.

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?

This act of engaging with end-users at an early stage of the design process is User Research. It is a fundamental idea of Human-Centred Design — one of the central innovation methodologies that we also use at the WFP Innovation Accelerator. Its name is quite literal; the process puts humans, whose life you are aiming to impact, at the forefront.

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.

During our Innovation Bootcamps, we use project design tools known as “Persona” and “User Journey” to help our teams navigate this complexity.

Persona is a hypothetical or a real person’s visual map that represents a user group and includes details about their everyday life, needs, goals and challenges. Building a Persona of a group of users helps the designers empathise with their target audience. For example, the designers of the EMPACT project which provides digital skills training for displaced communities, built their Persona based on the stories of Anas, a Syrian entrepreneur, and Marwa, a single mother, when considering their programme design.

Our innovation teams also create the User Journey mapping their users’ full experience related to their project — which starts before the challenge occurs and ends after it. It helps identify user’s feelings, thoughts and pain points and understand how a proposed solution fits into users’ realities. Both tools are excellent choices pre- and post-research as well. Building them based on assumptions can guide the focus of your research, and the goal is to build your Personas and their Journey based on real observations.

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.

There are a plethora of methods and tools that can aid user research, and all of them revolve around the power of empathy and active listening. A good user research conversation should focus on your user and not on selling your idea; this entertaining video called “The Mom Test” serves as a good example of why this is crucial. If you keep your ears open, you will undoubtedly get surprised.

“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.

The key ingredient for making any innovation project a success is our openness to learning. We will learn surprising things from our users that we did not initially think about. We may also hear negative feedback from them. We have to be open to change, pivot, or sometimes accept failure and learn from it. Being a committed innovator can place you in a vulnerable position, but if you practice this new user-centric mindset, you will be able to make an impact and save or change many lives.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

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WFP Innovation Accelerator

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