When I worked at a mobile design/development studio, here’s how it worked: a client would describe a need, we would propose a solution, work for months to build it, hitting the milestones for the client, debug it, and release it, with the intention of including minor fixes in the updates. A plum project would require content updates and expansions, preferably several a year, for years.

Where was the research in this? We relied on exhaustive “expert reviews,” conducted internally, that fed into task or triage lists, often dumping 60–80 items per review that needed fixing before proceeding (I tried to pace out my reviews in manageable chunks, but a previous studio director was known for piling 200+ items in the queue). For some projects, we conducted user testing with prototypes in a client’s lab setting, but that was the exception. Informal testing with family and friends was more common.

In this environment, the client was king. We could provide our expert rationale based on our experience, but that was merely our opinion to be set aside, if the client had different ideas. Our job prioritized pleasing the client, above all else, paying little attention to the end-user. A happy client needed more work, either more apps, updates, or both. Metrics in the app or game tracked what worked, allowing designers to hone in on features or concepts that increased in-app-purchases. Often with well-known IP games, the deal included a profit-sharing arrangement incentivizing the team to devote more time to cracking the IAP. Stars and reviews in the app store held huge sway, pushing us to react to the the condensed sentiment of millions of users.

While we could build complex apps, we weren’t that expensive; price was our hook. Our tight turnarounds and easy access to publishing and immediately pushing fixes and updates encouraged clients to take chances. We were “fast fail,” gambling that it might be a hit, taking the money either way. Sometimes, the client came with just a glimmer of an idea — our team would weave a beautiful tapestry of story, art, and game play to pull the client in, convince them that we were the team to make all of their dreams come true. Other clients knew exactly what they wanted, looking only for a partner to execute. Most were looking to us for inspiration and innovation, some just wanted “something like X,” whatever was hot at the moment in the app store.

What would this have looked like if we had conducted research at the beginning of the project? We would have started with asking what problem the client thought their app was going to solve. Why were they making another tap game, another dating app, another photography app? I’m not sure our business model was strong enough to withstand the scrutiny. We sold what people wanted to buy, but the market was changing. Even with our low-prices we were losing our competitive edge. The growth wasn’t going to be in look-a-likes or even our brilliant, but expensive games, we needed to move into a higher-end market where the risk tolerance was lower than our entrepreneurs-with-a-dream or large corporate clients churning out products. This is when I left, right at the moment when the risk of not doing research was tipping the scales. Clients were no longer satisfied with expert promises or even their own out-sized opinions; they needed to know more about how to reach their audience, what to build, how to satisfy needs they had never thought about. These were all questions about the user, finally brought to light, no longer an after-thought. This was the game-changer.

Writer, researcher, observer