A few weeks ago, I found myself in a darkened theater watching a summer blockbuster. Although the movie was ostensibly about dinosaurs and feats of athleticism in high heels, I suddenly found myself thinking about user experience design.
Scientist: “Nothing in Jurassic World is natural, we have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals. And if the genetic code was pure, many of them would look different. But you didn't ask for reality, you asked for more teeth.”
User experience design is about being an advocate for the user. It’s in your job title, after all. You’re recruiting users, talking to them, interviewing them, testing prototypes on them, asking them to perform a card sort, etc. On a product team, you’re tasked with being the user’s champion, making sure that you’re looking for unmet needs and meeting them in a delightful, intuitive way.
Where reality meets theory though, user experience is about balance. It’s about balancing between stakeholders, and balancing between constraints and exhaustiveness. That’s what brought user experience to mind while I watched Jurassic World — it’s a movie about what happens when there’s a fundamental disconnect between the user (visitors), the stakeholders (owners), and the product team (scientists) — you come up with a product that (spoiler alert!) tries to eat you. Thankfully, while there isn’t much opportunity to develop a homicidally toothy app, there are some real difficulties with communicating user research to stakeholders. This post highlights some of the methods the UX team here at Prolific Interactive have found most helpful in counteracting that.
At Prolific, we’ve had the privilege of working with open, supportive partners. Our kick-offs for each project typically include a deep-dive into the partner’s business and market. We spend hours interviewing members of the company — from co-founders to customer support — to benefit from their insights and learn not only about their product, but also about their motivations and aspirations. We’ll go through sales team training, and of course, we’ll use the product (e.g. on the SoulCycle project, more than a few Prolific P’s became regular riders!). This is all done as a team to make sure that we’re perfectly positioned with the context needed to begin research and ideation.
Post-kickoff, we would ideally continue the close collaboration between the product team and the partners so that knowledge is transferred as directly as possible. In an ideal scenario, members of our team and our partners will sit in on user sessions, and at the end of the day, everyone involved will have a great understanding of the full intersection of company, brand, and user needs as our knowledge of it evolves. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen.
A transparent research process builds our partner’s trust in our process and our shared product. But, the reality is, even though they might want to, our partners don’t always have the time to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with our UX designers as critical insights into user needs come to light. So, we have an interesting problem: how do we share these emerging insights with our partners in a way that is sufficiently frequent, in-depth, and persuasive as to keep our partners plugged into our evolving sense of the user but doesn’t require all of their (or our!) time?
To solve this challenge, we’ve used several different methods. It helps, for example, that we’re in constant ad hoc communication with them on Slack. Unfortunately, ad hoc conversations aren’t great for delivering cohesive insights. Another common Prolific practice is working on-site at our partner’s office at least once a week to make sure there’s ample opportunity for in-person conversation and collaboration. Still, just because we’re around each other doesn’t necessarily mean we have the insight to deliver at that time, or that there’s enough time to deliver it. In addition, there are research reports — these are great too, but their format almost demands that our partners devote serious brain-time to absorbing even the most tightly-edited report. We can give research updates during in-person design meetings, linking design choices with insights. But these meetings are already time-constrained, normally focused on something else (user flows, design specs), and hardly the right place for partners to first encounter often counterintuitive user insights.
Although each of these approaches will have its place, what we needed was a light, digestible way to keep our partners plugged into our evolving UX thinking. Our partners, after all, already have views about their users. Most of those views are going to be enormously beneficial and right on the mark, but sometimes their misappropriation can lead to subtle mis-prioritization. To use Jurassic World as an example, sometimes partners think that the user wants dinosaurs with more teeth, when in fact they only want more teeth if they also get impregnable walls and an entire army of Chris Pratts.
The Right Dinosaur
This is where we begin to see those tradeoffs come into play: we need to do the research, but we also need to deliver it to our partners in a way that is persuasive but can be completed within the scope of the project. There is only so much that can be communicated in an infrequently shared in-depth research report consisting of dozens of pages. It’s our job to find out what users actually want, but it’s also our job to communicate it in a way that provides clear understanding between all stakeholders while respecting their time and attention. At Prolific, after trial and error, we’ve come up with two solutions to facilitate this shared understanding.
Recording user interviews, prototype walkthroughs, etc., is a standard practice. It helps us focus on the interview and the user, not on live note-taking, and provides us with a library of insight to reference. If partners don’t have the chance to sit in on interviews, using a live google hangout session in addition to just recording allows them the opportunity to passively listen in on a session. This goes for the whole team, in fact. This makes it a great way to communalize information without having to wait for the user researcher to digest, distill, and disseminate that knowledge. We follow up with a team-wide debrief to discuss the outcomes, and talk about what everyone saw and heard. The core team and partners get to be in on the user testing process, and information is shared instantly, in real time. However, it still depends on stakeholders tuning in.
- Weekly UX digest (full example below)
The other practice that we’ve found to be highly impactful as a research-sharing tool is the weekly digest. In an agile setting that does away with traditional and often infrequent research reports, we’ve found that the weekly UX digest keeps our research process and design process transparent, and keeps stakeholders abreast on fresh insights as they come to light. Sent on a pre-planned basis by email, the digest covers the big research takeaways, socializes and acts as a spark for further conversation, and creates continuity, which can reinforce emerging trends or important threads throughout our user research. This eventually forms the basis of strategy and implemented design decisions.
In summary, the UX Digest prioritizes:
- Nuanced over high-level: These digests are not just for fun, they’re for communicating key insights taken from research and capture information we received and learned from throughout a particular sprint. Aside from keeping everyone on the same page, they provide real justification for affecting iterations and overall design direction.
- Frequent and short over infrequent and long: While we could include all the details that come up during a research sprint, we choose instead to summarize and focus on sharing key insights that drive the point home. Combined with a standard template design that favors larger text and simpler aesthetics, this strategy helps us in two ways: as a researcher, it requires less time to prepare, allowing us to focus more time on the research-gathering stage; and as a reader, bite-size reading is not only informative, but fun and easy to absorb while still respecting the demands of a busy schedule. Sending it frequently keeps everyone plugged into the process, but not so often as to overwhelm
- Flexible over structured: Every week, we have different avenues and sources of research. Sometimes, we do comparative or competitive analysis on other market leaders in the industry. Sometimes, we do open-question user interviews. Other times, we have users engage in participatory design. While we have a fixed style guide template for quick content population, we avoid the need to repeat any specific types of content, which allows for the flexibility to incorporate new types of research, keeps everything fresh, and promotes close-reading.
This is a hypothetical example of a UX digest:
The digest keeps everyone on the same page by communicating the important parts of our research across all levels. By keeping everyone consistently plugged into our ever-iterating research, it becomes easier to convey nuances to the partner, making it easier to make informed decisions. And it shows — stakeholders have been overwhelmingly positive about these methods.
In the end, it all boils down to the team — when the process is transparent, everyone is on the same page, and this makes it easier to move forward and come up with a strong product. At Prolific, we’re constantly trying to find new methods to communicate and collaborate over information. With just a little work, we can achieve a balance between the product team and the stakeholders — and avoid having to run screaming from a leopard/jellyfish/eel/dinosaur hybrid named Indominus Rex.
What has worked for your team and your partners? Leave a response in the comments below, or tweet us at @weareprolific!
Originally posted on blog.prolificinteractive.com on August 13, 2015.