Going Rogue: Rethinking UX Research

Motivate Design
Jul 7, 2016 · 6 min read

Earlier this month, our Director of Research Practice Jessica Bates hosted a webinar with UXPA and UserZoom to help others think critically about getting creative with research methodologies. (Or as we say at Motivate Design, going rogue.) Follow the webinar with the video and notes below.

Some background on UX

Whether you’ve heard it referred to as UX (User Experience) or the broader ‘Experience Design,’ the idea behind both concepts is that if a human can have an experience, you can design for it thoughtfully with that human’s needs at the center. A great experience should solve problems, remove friction, and even offer moments of surprise and delight.

UX has its roots in a lot of disciplines, though mostly popular in its application in the tech world. Over time, the ‘user’ definition has changed. Today, the ‘user’ is anyone interacting with a product, brand, or service: Clients, guests, customers, patients, students, etc.

Another thing that’s changed over the years is who leverages experience design to inform the decisions. Product managers or designers might be the first groups that come to mind, but many others are now seeing the benefits of starting with the end-user. Think: marketers, strategists, policy and public sector professionals, educators, etc.

Companies are beginning to invest heavily in building their internal UX capabilities, as well as expanding into related disciplines like customer experience, service design, and even employee experience.

A major tenet of UX is research

Many who work in UX come from other disciplines like the social sciences, design, product management, market research, or other related backgrounds. Though, today, true ‘UX’ degrees are much more ubiquitous.

So where does UX research start, and why is it helpful?

In it’s simplest form, UX Research can be used to explore something new or validate something important. Whether it’s to inform higher-order strategies or smaller steps in a produce development life cycle, it is important to integrate user research into your UX practice.

We’re humans. And that means that we can often be our own worst enemy. You may remember from psychology class that our brains don’t deal with information in it’s most accurate form — but we’re really good at doing things that are cognitively efficient, like stereotyping. It doesn’t take a lot of work to assume we know everything about another human (or user) from a few cues that probably only scratch the surface.

It’s very easy to rely on these cognitive shortcuts, and to accidentally design for ourselves or for what we assume the end user cares about — rather than investigating the true attitudinal and motivational components that make up their behaviors.

It’s rare that any of our own individual experiences are generalizable to an entire population, that we really know the innermost thoughts and needs of the people we’re trying to design for, or that a group like Millennials are so homogenous you can create a one-size-fits-all solution.

Getting creative with research methodologies

While both user research and more traditional, experimental approaches can be used to understand human behaviors, experimental research relies on much tighter control around study design so that one can, with some confidence, manipulate different variables and then measure the outcome to the point of being able to attribute a relationship between those variables with statistical significance.

User research can parallel in some ways to this approach, but is much more directional. Rather than isolate the specific things we hope to measure, we actually wish to integrate the contexts, confounding variables, and other messy human pieces into our study design. We do this because there’s no real world interaction that someone will have with a product, brand, or service that will exist in a vacuum. We want to be able to understand the role all those components will play — and then design accounting for them.

There are certainly areas of user research that lean towards the more experimental side, and most quantitative methodologies are a great example of where directionality is not always the goal. In fact, relaxing the different elements of a quantitative study is a great way to get bad data.

However, when you’re looking for the ‘why’ and relying on mostly qualitative methods, there are a lot of ways you can adjust your approach to uncover insights in a more meaningful way.

Why should we consider our methods anyway?

For those of you familiar with research, you know that reliability and validity are what make research a solid practice. You need to know that your methods will measure the thing you actually set out to measure.

Consider this example: You’re conducting an out-of-box test to see how well a Quick Start Guide helps a customer get started with a new device. If you ask a participant to complete certain tasks as they go, you’ll probably end up measuring their ability to follow directions or the difficulty of the tasks themselves more than you are the Quick Start Guide’s ability to guide a new user through them. Depending on your primary objectives, that could present a problem.

First — it’s important to re-examine our methods in the context of what we hope to learn and how we intend to learn it. Is there something we can do to better acknowledge that context in how we design a study?

Second — it’s important to be aware of user-centered research represents a reflexive way for us to understand ourselves. The methods we use to do so deserve revisiting as we and our culture evolve. Even within the past five years, most researchers can point to a marked difference in consumer self-awareness and their ability to provide conscientious feedback about their relationships with brands and products.

With that in mind, shouldn’t we be asking our questions differently?

When should you think about going rogue?

Ask yourselves these questions to help decide when to go rogue, and when to not.

1. What are you trying to solve?

Is it a limitation of a current method that you’re trying to get past? With Friendship Groups™, we were able to solve for some of the challenges traditional focus groups present.

Is it an actual business objective? Is there anything in the context of what you want to learn that can direct your approach? If you’re looking at packaging, is it more helpful to arrange it on a display with competitive products for feedback, or to expose it in isolation to customers?

2. Who do you want to talk to?

Do you need to verify that a particular persona is, in fact, your end user? Or are there different kinds of insights you want to collect in parallel on different users? Would it make sense to include within your sample potential, current, lapsed, and/or long-term customers who are already heavily invested in the product?

3. How will you collect and analyze data?

When it comes to research techniques, work backwards from the output. For example, we integrate ‘idea generation’ modules into Friendship Groups, not because we want the ideas (often times, they’re similar to ’faster horses’), but because we want to trace the train of thought participants have around a particular experience.

4. Who is your audience?

Your insights are only ever as good as the ability of your stakeholders to understand and internalize them. Design a learning moment for the end-stakeholder as much the user during research.

Stakeholders may have their own priorities competing with user-centric insights for their attention and that may affect how they connect with the results. Synthesize your findings in a participatory way that goes beyond a presentation.

To sum it up, when trying to get creative, focus on methods that would normally give directional insights, and look for components to adjust that make sense for who you want to talk to, what you want to learn, and how you want to learn and/or teach it.

Motivate Design

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discover, design, disrupt, disco | @motivate_design

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