#UXRConf Preview: Meet Abby Bajuniemi

A Q&A on transitioning into UX, why natural language is important, and how you can take part in her book!

Abby Bajuniemi, independent consultant and Strive Conference speaker

Strive is less than a month away! If you haven’t grabbed a ticket yet, make sure to do so soon. They’re going fast! 💨

Before the conference, we’re introducing you to our speakers. Up at the plate is Abby Bajuniemi, an independent consultant currently partnering with Gomoll Research + Design, a consulting firm specializing in human interface design, usability, and human factors.

Before UX, Abby was a professor and academic — teaching, speaking, and publishing on linguistics and language learning. Today, she applies that expertise to her work in UX and human factors interaction design. She also holds workshops and gives conference talks on the intersection of language and tech, and is currently writing a book about natural language research and design.

We had a chat with Abby about what drew her to UX, and what “natural language” means and why it’s so important. Also, find out how you can be part of Abby’s book, and her advice to budding UX professionals below. 👇


Tell us about yourself and what drew you to UX!

Without going into details that will only piss me off and are probably not of interest to anyone reading this 🙂, I decided academia wasn’t right for me. I hold a PhD in Applied Linguistics, specializing in Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition.

When my contract as a Visiting Assistant Professor was ending, I started researching non-academic careers that other linguists have and like. I stumbled on an interview with Nancy Frishberg on careerlinguist.com. She is a researcher in UX. She described her day-to-day, what she likes about her job, and how her training as a linguist helps her succeed. I thought it sounded really interesting, so I started on the path to move to UX!

Side note: If you want to read more about that pivot and transition, especially if you’re an academic and don’t know how to leave the academy, check out Succeeding Outside the Academy! I have an essay featured in this edited collection about my move out of academia and specific recommendations on how to go about doing it yourself. (FYI-I do not get royalties from this book, I’m just proud of this collection and hope it helps people!)

How has your background in linguistics impacted your work as a UX Researcher and Designer?

I’m an applied linguist, and our research methods for collecting data are pretty much 1:1 — we do card sorts (semantics and pragmatics research), ethnographies (sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology), treejack tests (syntax), interviews (all), task design and assessment design (all but especially Second Language Acquisition). So having that extended, deep study of research methods and data analysis, as well as teaching, both have made me a much better researcher.

Now that language-based interactions are becoming more widespread in tech, my knowledge of language systems and how language exhibits and/or reinforces bias, how language acts as a tool to construct reality and as a tool to include or exclude people seems so much more relevant. I am realizing that so many people need to know this stuff too, based on the articles I’m seeing around chatbots and VUI.

Your talk will focus on how to conduct ethical research around natural language and provide guidance on how to get natural language samples. Can you tell us what “natural language” means and why it’s important in UX Research?

“Natural language” might take different meanings depending on the context and how it’s being used, but I’m using it as a catch-all to mean anything produced by people spontaneously to make communication happen between people.

This interview is natural language because the only scripted part of this is the set of interview questions you gave me. The conversation that happens in a classroom during an activity is also natural language.

The way we “talk” to chatbots and VUI is also a form of natural language, or at least a lot of people are trying to make it natural language. Alexa Skills can be pretty scripted — if you don’t say the exact right thing, the action doesn’t take place. (And users get frustrated by this because there’s no one singular way to ask for things!)

So it’s important because the more the goal is to make these language interactions between technology and people “natural,” the more you need to know about how it works between people and how you go about researching how people use language.

The more the goal is to make these language interactions between technology and people “natural,” the more you need to know about how it works between people and how you go about researching how people use language.

Do you have any tips on how we can use language and voice to build rapport with users during interviews and usability sessions? How can we encourage users to open up to us more?

I mean, don’t shout at participants. 🙂

I think there’s no real blanket advice I can give on this because conversations are completely context-dependent. The location, the people involved, and the individual personality/identity/affect characteristics of all the people involved, will influence the conversation. Avoid the obvious culprits: using biased language and slurs or trying to take on their accent or variety when it’s not a part of your repertoire (it comes across as mocking).

This is a hard question because there’s so much that goes into how comfortable a user feels with someone, and this can be good and bad. I’ve seen participants focus on the male researcher during interviews, even though he was the note-taker because that was their bias and they felt more comfortable addressing the male note-taker than the female facilitator. I’m sure people of color, disabled folks, or people who otherwise don’t fit into the cultural construction of their identities have similar stories. It can be a real challenge to keep calm and upbeat in those kinds of situations.

Congrats on your new book, “Designing and Researching Natural Language Interaction”! Can you tell us more about it and what inspired you to write this book?

Thanks! I mentioned earlier that I was reading a lot of articles that confirmed to me that there was a need for a book that explains linguistic concepts to technologists. I saw articles where the author attempted to create a theory of conversation with no reference to the 50+ years of scholarship and theory on the subject. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, and most of these articles didn’t even touch on the social implications of language use and language choices.

What I’m trying to do with this book is mix linguistic theory with practical advice and examples, including research methods. I talk about how language and society are interconnected and deeply embedded in one another and what that means for language design and localization. I explain linguistic variation and how language is used as a subtle discriminatory tool. I have a whole chapter on bias and creating inclusive language interactions. I worried at first that it might be too negative, but then I read a good article from Dan Brown on “abusability,” and I realized that we need to be talking more about the harm we could do. There’s a lot of information on how language is used to harm people and how to avoid it.

By the way, I’m still writing the book and developing content, so if you’re interested in participating, I’m including two surveys I developed to try to capture people’s experiences with 1. chatbots and 2. VUI. Each takes 10–15 mins to complete, depending on how in-depth your answers are.

VUI: https://surveymonkey.com/r/6LHDLQK

Chatbots: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/6DWK9W6

And please distribute in your circles! There’s an option at the end to sign up for updates on the book and get a discount when it’s released!

Finally, what advice do you have for budding UX Research professionals on how they can advance their careers?

That’s a great question!

  1. Read as much as you can from sources you trust. NN/g, 18F, usability.gov are great resources for methods and research (note: I have a USA bias because that is where I live and work — there are likely other sources in your area).
  2. Talk to people! Go to networking events, try to get to conferences if you are financially in a place that allows you to do so. Get on social media and engage with industry professionals. Watch talks on YouTube or other media channels. There are so many great free/low-cost events and materials. It’s an effort you have to make. You don’t have to do all of the things I listed, because people can’t always take on all of those things. Pick the ones that are accessible to you and do them.
  3. Continue learning, being curious, and be ok with failing. Everyone fails, and it teaches you things about yourself. I feel like this all sounds trite, but I sincerely mean it. Especially if you are not a well-connected white male, you have to work to advance your career.
Continue learning and being curious and be ok with failing, because everyone fails and it teaches you things about yourself.

Learn from Abby in the Advancing Your Practice track at Strive: The 2019 UX Research Conference

Tickets are still available for the Main Stage talks on June 7th and only a few tickets remain for the Research Foundations & Advancing Your Practice tracks on June 6th!

Purchase tickets here.

📅 June 6–7

📍 Roy Thomson Hall, 60 Simcoe St, Toronto, ON, M5J 2H5