Putting our arms around professionalizing UX, one small piece at a time: thoughts on research

I haven’t written in a more professional capacity for a while as I’ve been managing relocating myself and my life to a new continent for the next little while (Australia and I are going to get on just fine, I think). Anyway, warning: a bit of a thought flow mess follows. I’m working something out in front of you.

1. Cross-pollination

My theme for this time in Oz is “cross-pollination.” I thrive on thinking about where and how ideas from different silos should actually be considered in the same context to kickstart innovation, or playing what-if games about one problem being considered in an “unrelated” topic’s framework for solution-seeking. Right now that’s looking like considering Program Evaluation, UX, and teaching and learning as a three-way Venn diagram and looking at each part as well as that precious middle spot where all three overlap.

But as focused as that is, it’s still a huge space, and I’m still working out the words around why it’s holding my attention. One word that keeps coming up is “professionalization.” UX practitioners keep dancing around that in so many places, talking about the UX of hiring UX, the various roles in UX and what they are/do, and the annoyance of “doing UX,” but what about it? Where to begin digging in and trying to create some movement forward towards this? Are we in agreement this is a problem? And if so, guess what: evaluation and teaching/learning are also struggling with what professionalization means. What clues can they give us?

2. Narrowing that focus to research

Putting that big question aside for a minute, let’s narrow a bit. One conversation that’s still kicking around in my mind is on research as verb but also as skill. I am part of the teaching team for a UX course at Harvard, and recently finished helping students through their homework assignment on user research. My mind was primed to take note when I came across Nicola Rushton’s prototypr.io writing on research in her professional practice, and take note I did.

She shares honestly and with humor about her experience and perspective developing her research skills, and my first thought was that I wished I could have influenced the syllabus a bit more to include her articles in my students’ readings. She helped me grasp exactly what was bothering me about my students’ experience with this homework assignment — my teaching team and I assumed they were comfortable with research the verb, and had some level of research skill. We didn’t gauge it before or during the assignment, instead emphasizing the what of research, and its importance.

During our chat, Nicola and I talked out our thoughts on research and our experiences (she as an amazing, remarkable self-taught practitioner and me as a doctoral-level trained researcher who now teaches, and both of us as inherently curious, personable people); we considered the democratization of skills like researching that are typically saved for students who seek out Master’s or Doctorate degrees. What does it mean to bring that out of the ivory tower into the workplace? What does it do for the professionalization of the role that the person building those skills holds? How do we help people name and work through the barriers to good research that they face?

She prompted me to dig out and share something I had written to myself as I struggled with putting my doctorate on pause to test my ideas in the wild:

“If academia is The Way that new thought and theory ideas are formulated and tested, then why aren’t dissertations more popular reading? Why aren’t they marketed to people who could use or benefit from trying the ideas? What if academia is only valuable to itself and the real sweet spot is making academia accessible and useful to everyone else who actually acts on the ideas? Is Jeff Raskin’s 1967 dissertation arguing for GUI in computers over text taught in Computer Science or design courses? I sure hadn’t heard of it in all my learning. Thank G-D Steve Jobs knew about it and dragged it out into the light (p 108 Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio).”

Nicola taught herself good research, so we talked about how to know what “good” is and to be able to hone it with intention when you’ve taught yourself. We talked about how I’ve been specifically supporting my students as they negotiate a space many of them never learned to traverse whatsoever, and are now being asked to do without much scaffolding (intentional support and guidance grounded in pedagogy). We talked about the power of unpacking and naming pieces of our work and considering whether they are studied anywhere, and what the findings are.

We didn’t solve much in one chat, but it was an example of cross-pollinating in action, and it’s exciting to think what could happen now as a result. (That’s the beauty, to me, of technological advances in online writing and dialogue, particularly in service to teaching and learning…but that’s for another time!)

Big thank you to Nicola for allowing me to record my perceptions and takeaways from our conversation. I promise something substantial will come of this, not just a thought flow. :)