5 Lessons UX researchers have taught me about content design
How working with user experience researchers has made me a better writer
Working as a content designer, I’ve personally seen how much UX research and UX writing go hand-in-hand. How could I make decisions that help the users if I don’t understand their motivations, goals, mindset, and characteristics?
I’ve had the pleasure of working with many researchers. I’ve listened to their readouts, attended interviews as a silent observer, collaborated to create a research plan, and I even got to be the one to question them (check out my article Advice to Future UX Researchers).
Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned from working with researchers that I can use in content design:
1. The power of silence
Growing up the youngest of 4 children, my house was always loud. So, silence is something I am not used to, or comfortable with. I typically fill it pretty quickly. Turns out that in research, silence can be necessary. It allows the participant to really think about their answer and add more details.
“When they’re pausing, they’re either contemplating whether they should mention something, or trying to take something that is buried deep and trying to find a way to articulate it explicitly. And if you jump in, you stop them from doing that, and they’re about to say something possibly really revelatory that they haven’t even thought about until just now.” — Amber Asaro, UX researcher at Red Hat
Observing interviews with silence taught me to really listen to what people are saying. If people are having trouble finding an ending to their sentence, I usually will try to help them find the right words. Instead, as I’ve learned from UX researchers, I need to give them a moment to think and come to their own conclusions. When I try to help someone finish their sentence, it stops their own thought process and pushes them toward my own assumptions. Silence is a tool used to dig deeper.
2. Check your bias
Everyone has biases, whether you’re aware of them or not.
Let’s say you are really excited about a design. You’ve worked really hard on it and are proud of it. When you go to test it, you only look at the results supporting the design and your assumptions. You ignore anything that challenges your idea. This is confirmation bias and can lead to misinterpretations of feedback.
That was just one example of many different types of bias. If you want to learn a little more about bias in UX research, check out Genis Frigola’s article. The more you learn and educate yourself about different biases, the better you can be at avoiding them.
As a writer, I know how important words are, but I don’t always realize my language is influencing people. When looking for feedback, I should avoid leading questions, such as “This makes sense, right?” and instead ask open-ended questions, such as “What do you think of this?”
Working with researchers, I’ve seen them take measures to avoid biases, such as writing down their assumptions before they begin, asking open-ended questions in interviews, and using large sample sizes.
Be sure to check your bias perceptions you have toward your audiences. Your background, culture, identity, and ideas are not the same as the majority of people. Do not make designs based on assumptions.
3. You are not your user
You may create something you think is perfect. But if it’s just you who thinks that, then you’ve missed the mark. Validating your work with your users is essential to making sure you’re creating a product that is actually solving a problem.
Without interviewing and testing with users, choices would be made based on what the designers, developers, analysts, or CEOs prefer. Do we have great ideas? Yes. Are all of our ideas great for our users? Not quite.
If it was just up to me, I’d write in a casual, playful, enthusiastic voice. My copy would be filled with puns, exclamation points, and encouragement. Why? Because it’s fun to write. Is it the best option for users? Most of the time, no.
So now that we have established you are not the user you are designing for, get to know your actual user. Do interviews, surveys, A/B tests, card sorts, any and all testing to find out what works and doesn’t work.
4. Pay attention to what people do
As I mentioned, it is important to pay attention to what people say. However, it is even more important to pay attention to what they do. Humans don’t have the best memory. We can’t rely just on what people remember, which is why it is so important to watch what they do.
Instead of just asking someone how they would do something, have them share their screen and show you what steps they would take. Chances are, they don’t even realize half of the stuff they are doing. It is part of their normal rhythm.
People also have different perceptions. Let’s pretend we ask two people, Tom and Jerry, to run a mile. They both run a 10-minute mile. Tom used to be an avid runner and averaged 7-minute miles. Jerry, on the other hand, has never ran a mile before. At the end of the run, we ask both of them to rate how fast they think they ran on a scale of 1–10 with 10 being the fastest. Tom rates himself a 3. Jerry rates himself an 8. Did Jerry run way faster than Tom? No. Are either of them lying? No. They just have different backgrounds which influence their responses.
While it is important to ask for people’s thoughts and opinions on your designs, try to also show them your design and see how they react. Give them a task and see if they know where to click based on your designs. Observing how your others interact with your work can uncover valuable insight that they wouldn’t think to include in written or verbal feedback.
5. Get answers to questions you didn’t ask
As I discussed in lesson #2, researchers ask great, open questions. As a result, they sometimes receive information that isn’t quite related to what they were originally looking for. Be prepared to pivot to follow-up questions that respond to the new information that you learn.
As a designer, sometimes working too closely with the designs impairs our ability to look at the big picture. The design might be great at solving a problem, just not the problem we should be focusing on.
I’ve witnessed research interviews in which the participants bring up a challenge we hadn’t considered and weren’t originally looking to explore. Instead of brushing past it, the researcher dug deeper.
Sometimes people will give you information you weren’t looking for. That doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful. When people offer insights into problems you didn’t even know existed, don’t just ignore them. They can be starting points to a different solution or can help you discover you were looking in the wrong direction. Ask the follow-up questions.
Bonus: Appreciate your researchers
Researchers provide great insight and data, however a lot of the time, they must fight to have a seat at the table. While more and more companies are recognizing the importance of UX research, a lot of companies still don’t value researchers as much as they should.
Not only have the researchers I’ve worked with been great, amazing people, but they also help me do my job better. I can’t be the best content designer if my decisions aren’t data-driven and for the user. Help improve your user experience and include researchers in your conversations.
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