A Taste of UX Research’s Future: Social media as a stand-alone UX research methodology
You love these Vietnamese sandwiches from a little mom and pop shop in the city center. They’re perfect. The tofu is soaked through and salted precisely to your liking. You go there so often that the people recognize you and know your order, the #4.
But, as one of the many small business casualties during this tough corona constricted economy, your favorite Vietnamese sandwich shop closes. After an appropriate time of mourning, you think to yourself, ‘I can make these sandwiches, it can’t be that hard — it’s just tofu, pickled carrots, mayonnaise, and bread.’
Alas, your attempt to recreate the beloved Vietnamese sandwich simply doesn’t live up to the standards you’re accustomed to. It just doesn’t quite taste the same.
For many UX researchers, face-to-face interactions with users represent our bread and butter, metaphorically speaking. Although the world of UX research is alive and thriving, research methods that rely on direct, face-to-face user participation like a fly on the wall or follow-along observations are still highly coveted amongst researchers.
This is probably best exemplified by the fact that despite growing and warranted concerns over climate change, many of us still fly to meet users because it gives us the opportunity to speak with them face to face. Our jobs are so heavily predicated on the nuances of human interaction that being there first hand is often considered a necessity.
So, what happens when face-to-face interactions between researcher and user are taken off the table completely — let’s say, as a consequence of the same pandemic that closed down your favorite Vietnamese sandwich shop?
Given the current corona-induced societal shutdown, I think it’s safe to assume that a lot of UX researchers are struggling to replace face-to-face research methods with digital tools. If we can’t access our users directly, surely it’s not possible to uncover the valuable insights that we can only get physically interacting with the user. We can’t possibly reinvent the sandwich!
Of course, you can. The beauty of research is that it’s adaptable.
Don’t sleep on social media
As the world goes online, social media, in particular, is more valuable than ever to UX research. We are staying connected from the confines of our homes through hashtags, live streams, some platform the kids use called Tik Tok, and many other outlets. Surely, other Vietnamese sandwich enthusiasts are out there, sharing their tips and tricks for getting the tofu extra salty, just the way you like it.
Social media in UX research is not a new concept in itself but seems to function as part of desktop research rather than a stand-alone methodology. However, social media represents a significant component of many people’s social living practices, even before the pandemic forced them to migrate to digital spaces. Accordingly, it should be its own research methodology, rather than a mere accessory tool.
The particularly beautiful thing about using social media as UX research methodology is that the user does a lot of the work for you. Unlike in face-to-face interviews, they have the power to control the subject matter and how much information they’re willing to share. This control of the subject matter points to the user’s priorities, values, and motivations with a level of uninterfered authenticity that I feel is often harder to capture during face-to-face interactions.
So, what does a social media UX research methodology look like? One could say a lot like a Vietnamese sandwich…
📱 Step 1: Assess what social media can and can’t show you
This is a preparation of sorts akin to gathering all the ingredients you’d need to make a sandwich in one convenient, accessible place, like a kitchen table. While social media may provide access to the user, it’s incomplete access in many ways. Accordingly, you need to take note of any shortcomings or blindspots that may arise during research to better elucidate exactly how social media will help you better understand the user.
For example, when researching vulnerable populations or deeply personal topics, it may be difficult for participants to open up to strangers (i.e. the interviewer) in person. In this sense, social media may actually serve as a better source of users’ authentic feelings about a particular problem they’re having or product they’re using. While users may not feel comfortable opening up to strangers in person, the degree of separation social media affords them might empower some users to be more honest with their feelings. Furthermore, social media use is often habitual, so research conducted in a more natural set up like platforms can feel less “staged” than in-person interviews.
The downside, however, is that the user may not post about topics or products that are directly related to your research needs. Luckily, gaps in social media research can be supplemented by other digital UX methods like online surveys or video interviews.
🔍 Step 2: Have a search strategy
Strategic searching functions as a necessary foundation for your research, much like the bread in a sandwich. In order to extract the most relevant information from platforms with infinite scrolling capabilities, you have to understand what kind of insights you should be looking for.
Is your research lacking product reviews? Then hashtag searching and online forums are the best starting point. Are you having trouble understanding a user’s routine? Live streams or vlogging platforms like Youtube are your best bet.
Once you’ve identified a search strategy, you need to slowly chip away at the various facets of your topic. For example, if I wanted to know how to make the tofu in my Vietnamese sandwich extra salty, I would likely start with video searching on Youtube using a fairly generic keyword or phrase like “how to make Vietnamese sandwiches.” This vague search might give me a few relevant hits, but likely won’t teach me how to make my tofu salty. So, I continue my searching with increasing specificity like “what salt to use on tofu”.
The beauty of this ‘chipping’ approach that social media affords researchers is that it usually uncovers a lot of details you would have not anticipated or looked for otherwise. For example, as you chipped away at tofu tutorials, you learned that the tofu actually gets salty through the marination process, not necessarily from how much salt you use. The bottom line with strategic searching is to cover the various nuances of your research subject that you would likely observe if the user was physically in front of you, like a nervous tick or lack of interest in your questions.
🌀 Interlude: Avoid falling down the social media wormhole
You’ve got your bread and your salty tofu ready and you turn around for five seconds to wipe some stains off your shirt when suddenly your dog jumps up on the table and swipes your sandwich masterpiece in the making! Similarly, the vast amount of content readily available through social media makes it almost too easy to get distracted.
To further complicate this, social media is something we use in our recreational time, so it’s harder to delineate work from play when researching on social media. Stop frequently and reflect upon whether the 9th Youtube video you’ve watched about Vietnamese beef sandwiches is providing relevant insights or if you’ve simply slipped out of research mode and into recreation (or hunger) mode.
👀 Step 3: Analyze your data (online!)
Some additional time after the dog fiasco and you’ve finally got all your ingredients prepared and ready — the only thing left to do is assemble your sandwich. As you start to find relevant insights, make sure to assemble them somewhere collaborative. Traditionally, this is done through whiteboards and brainstorming sessions with the rest of your UX team — or, even, across teams like engineers and industrial designers who will later use your insights for prototyping. There are plenty of online whiteboard tools like Miro that make the transition to online collaboration seamless. Furthermore, the advantage of migrating insights into a digital platform is that that information lives on long after a whiteboard has been erased, something that can really come in handy if you have future projects with the same client or research topic.
🤔 Step 4: Ethical considerations
As you dig into your Vietnamese sandwich, reflect upon any ways you could have made it better. Social media as a stand-alone UX research methodology necessitates that we reexamine the practical and ethical boundaries of research. For example, a participant will more than likely see you start recording them on a device, but social media users almost never know when their content is being screenshot. This creates a huge debate about the ethics of researching on social media. Here’s what we think are the most important guidelines for properly handling insights drawn from social media:
- Try to avoid screenshots, but if necessary, blur out any personal information like user handles. When in doubt, paraphrase.
- If you want to directly contact users, be transparent about why you’re contacting them from the start. For example, if you’re researching cancer patients and want to join a cancer support group, explain when you request access what your purpose is, e.g. you are a UX researcher looking for people to interview.
- If possible, have an insider do your recruiting for you. I recently worked on a project involving individuals with spina bifida (SB). A friend of mine happened to have a child with SB and offered to post an anonymous survey I created to their Facebook support group so I would have wider access without infringing on the group’s privacy and safe space.
🎉 Step 5: Extra considerations
Condiments are fun but not necessary. While this sandwich metaphor functions as a methodology guideline for doing social media UX research, it is in no way definitive. Explore and play around with the new methodology.
Here are two reflections, in particular, we hope to explore further in future projects:
- The ‘user’ in social media UX research is usually not one person, but rather an amalgam of profiles that composite a user persona. Perhaps, social media is the new tool for creating user personas in UX.
- The traditional follow-along method in UX can transfer into a social media space where the researcher (consensually!) follows a specific user profile in all their social media activities either on one channel (e.g. Instagram) or across multiple channels. Social media follow-alongs can help unearth more tacit behavioral patterns that play out over longer periods of time.
At the end of the day, just because things are shut down due to Corona restrictions does not mean that the people have shut down — they’ve simply migrated to digital spaces. And isn’t UX research at its core about people?
Accordingly, as adaptable researchers, we must follow the people and feature digital methodologies like social media researching more prominently in our UX toolkit moving forward. In other words, instead of being hung up on how you can’t get those Vietnamese sandwiches you liked so much anymore, go out and arm yourself with new tools to make a better-tasting sandwich.
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