Grounding, Inspiring, Validating - What is UX Research part 1

Grounding, Inspiring, Validating - What is UX Research part 1

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Coming out of my Ph.D., I was not quite prepared to become a user experience researcher in the industry. While I was well prepared with the research side of things, everything else was, and to a large extent still remains, unknown. So as I am learning on the job my new role, I thought I would share a thought or two about what I believe user experience is, and some of the questions I still have.

The Research Side of User eXperience

First and foremost, I am currently building an understanding of the role of UX research in the product development lifecycle, and how it interacts with other sources of customer data, and in particular marketing data.

Grounding

To me, one of the key role of a user experience researcher is to provide a fertile ground on which design ideas will flourish to become nice and healthy designs. It is to provide the key understanding of the users that will shape how systems are designed. This goes beyond individual behaviors to look at the broader picture, the context in which the system will be used in terms of technology, physical environment, social context, work flows, etc.

For the skeptic reader, I would recommend reading the famous and inspirational paper by Heath et al.,
Collaboration and Control: Crisis Management and Multimedia Technology in London Underground Line Control Rooms. It describes how by looking at the control room of the London Subway, they uncovered key social interactions that would not have been supported by the current plan for distributing the team in different places. As is often the case, the initial understanding of the user for the design decisions was too shallow to provide a holistic view of what should be created and implemented.

For those interested to learn how my colleagues and I undergo grounding research, I will write a follow up post later.

Inspiring

As Paula has articulated recently, another critical aspect of user experience research is to foster a new understanding of the usage of technology, and to provide new perspectives on a particular area (in our case, software development). By understanding the user and his interaction with technology better, you can identify unexploited opportunities for improving an experience, by supporting a behavior subtle ways, by designing more flexibility in the product, or even by sympathizing with the user and advocating for simpler, easier interface.

The question that remains is how to you go about inspiring the product team? Some pieces of research are self explanatory. They make anyone think of the design space from a new and refreshing perspective. These findings are not necessarily validated (as in precise, realistic, or generalizable, see Runkel and McGrath, Research on Human Behavior: A Systematic Guide to Method (1972) for a neat explanation of validity compromises in research). Yet, their goals is not to ground or validate design, but to challenge designers (or engineers, product planners, managers, etc.) to think about the design space in a new and interesting way, opening new avenues for innovation.

Validating

To conclude this already overlong post, it is time to discuss the more traditional user experience job, validation. What I believe is still often shortcut to usability, is in fact a set of method for testing whether or not the design intent of a design (or a redesign) has been met. It requires to understand what the goal of the (re)design was, and to be able to operationalize (bless you) its success. This is often a very tricky affair, as some people are not very agile at articulating their design intent, and that often measuring the success of this design can be an open-ended research problem in and on itself. For example, in my thesis, I was tried to design communication systems that made people feel closer to one another. The challenge I was faced with was to determined whether or not I had succeeded with a reasonable amount of confidence. Besides the obvious, asking the question to users directly, I took on to operationalize closeness by assuming that if people get closer, they get to know more about one another. The problem of assessing increase in closeness became of problem of assessing whether or not the users got to know more about one as they used the system I had designed.

Not every validation study requires this sort of alternative thinking. In fact, in many case, there are clear and measurable goals that can be measured, such as time to complete task, number of errors,etc. These studies, more common in usability, are a great way to measure increase in effectiveness or productivity. They can rely on measurable physical behaviors. They are a great way to double check that you are really improving interaction and performances. They are usually linked to the ability for users to understand the interaction model and the information architecture, and to interact with it. However, they can be misleading as there are many situations in which performance with an interface is not the critical factor of the user experience. Take a game for example, while users can be efficient using the interface, the user is likely to really wants fun rather than efficiency.

Finally, there is always the polishing of the user experience, where upon wrapping up the design, the designer wants to know if anything major has been overlooked. By walking users through the design, the researchers tries to capture critical misunderstanding or interaction breakdowns that users encounter with the interface.

To be continued...
In the next episodes:
The Collaborative Side of User eXperience
The Convincing Side of User eXperience

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