Celebrating Creativity in UX Research

Nicole Chen
Jun 26, 2017 · 6 min read

UX research is demanding, high-impact work (and no, we aren’t biased at all!). Stakeholders ranging from engineers to senior leadership turn to us to better understand the nuanced motivations and behaviors of the people we’re designing for, to guide product direction, to test hunches, and to uncover needs and opportunities we couldn’t anticipate from our office desks. We’re expected to do all this in ways that are rigorous, representative, and repeatable … oh, and to do it as quickly as possible.

Given these conditions, we UX researchers have to flex our creative muscles every day. We often need to innovate upon existing research methods to accommodate constraints like tight deadlines, complex subject areas, or culturally unique communities. We may need to devise creative ways to find patterns among high volumes of various data types. And as representatives of our users, we sometimes need to invent new ways of sharing their stories to make sure they hit home.

The art of our science

Despite all this, the words “research” and “creativity” are rarely seen in public together. We’re still viewed as white-coated scientists or elbow-patched academics, not free-thinking, rule-bending creatives.

It’s time for us to openly and explicitly celebrate the creativity we draw upon every day as part of our discipline. How do we do that? Here are some ways that we on the Facebook UX research team foster and celebrate creativity in our work — and that you can, too:

Frame creativity as a means to an end
UX Research must be rigorous and purposeful; the products we work on impact people’s lives in very real ways. That’s why creativity should always be framed to both stakeholders and to other researchers as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

For example, we often have to build upon or adapt more traditional research methods in light of time constraints, cultural considerations, and other factors. When that happens, make sure stakeholders understand that your proposed method is designed to tackle those challenges, not just to show off your creativity.

Here’s a real-life example: Raman Hansi Sudan needed to get a room full of developers to talk openly about apps they believed would become successful in the next few years. This can be a somewhat dry topic that usually generates predictable answers when the question is asked directly. Her solution: make it fun via an activity. Raman created a series of paper rocket ships representing various apps and asked the developers to physically show her which ones were taking off. This prompted a lively and engaging conversation; not only did they debate each other vigorously as they moved the rocket ships around, but one participant even took a rocket ship and showed it going backwards, something Raman didn’t anticipate. The rocket ships weren’t just a fun way to “mix things up” — it actually led to more substantial and surprising insights.

Similarly, coming up with creative ways to report findings isn’t just a matter of keeping things fresh. It can make the difference between building empathy for users among your stakeholders and boring them. For some specific ideas about creative sharing methods, take a look at Beyond Bullet Points: Four Creative Ways to Share Research, written by some of our Facebook colleagues.

Create a safe place to learn, share, and experiment.
Creativity thrives when people have a safe place to experiment, ask questions, get ideas, and vet their own ideas. At Facebook, we often collaborate with cross-functional partners via Facebook Groups, where team members post topics and engage in discussions via comments. We’ve taken that idea and built a group in which UX researchers can freely share ideas and resources around creativity in research.

Discussions have happened around topics such as research methods people have tried or want to try, ways to analyze large volumes of messy data, and storytelling tactics to showcase findings to stakeholders. Anyone can post anything, which helps to foster experimentation and sharing.

Your workplace is different, of course, but it likely has room, either virtual or physical, for a safe experimental space.

Celebrate and share the creativity that’s already happening.
Once you’ve got that space to share, you need stuff to share (and to get the conversation rolling)! A great place to look for it is inside your own research team. Creativity is happening already; every day, someone comes up with an effective workaround to a research challenge. But too often, these stories come and go with individual researchers, never making it into the annals of institutional knowledge.

At Facebook, we invite researchers to nominate peers who have given UX research a fresh spin. Nominees are then asked to write up their experience and share it with the broader research community. Getting nominated by peers makes people feel good. Plus, there’s a built-in audience for what they have to share.

It’s also important to honor a diverse story set, from qualitative to quantitative to mixed-method. A few of the countless potential topics include creative ways to recruit, unique ways to analyze data, and effective ways to bridge insight to product action. The tools we leverage as UX researchers are extremely diverse, so we try to collect stories that reflect that diversity.

Start a “creative fitness” class and build those reps!
Creativity is a muscle — and it doesn’t take much to get it into shape. It’s easy to fall into our routines, where we stay within familiar environments, surround ourselves with our go-to collaborators, and use research methods we’re accustomed to. Working with new people in new environments can be enough to start a wave of inspiration and help people see possibilities they hadn’t considered before.

On our research team, we’ve been experimenting with monthly Creative Research Methods workshops. People spend a hour over lunch collaborating with researchers they don’t usually get to work with to tackle research challenges and brainstorm ways to work around constraints. It’s intentionally short to make participation feasible within busy work schedules, but stretching those creative muscles for just an hour once a month is often enough to spark ideas for one’s own research areas.

So celebrate creativity by practicing it. Create short but frequent opportunities to pull you and your teammates out of your day-to-day routine and surround yourself with new people in new spaces and new topic areas.

— — — — —

While we’ve shared some of the ways we foster and celebrate UX research creativity at Facebook in this article, our job certainly isn’t done. We are constantly thinking about new and better ways to keep pushing individual growth as well as institutional growth as a creative UX research organization. What else are UX research teams out there doing to foster and celebrate creativity in research? We’d love to hear from you — please comment below!

Authors: Jill Campaiola, Researcher at Facebook; Liz Keneski, Researcher at Facebook; and Nicole Chen, Researcher at Instagram (from left to right)

Illustrator: Drew Bardana

Facebook Research

Learnings from the people who study human behavior for Facebook

Nicole Chen

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Product Research @ Instagram

Facebook Research

Learnings from the people who study human behavior for Facebook

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