#UXRConf Preview: Meet Christopher Geison

A Q&A on emerging technologies, disrupting the disruptors and more!

Christopher Geison, Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Chris Geison got into UX research the completely non-traditional way! 😁He started out in San Francisco with the idea of becoming the next big American novelist. But life had different plans.

After working in marketing and behavioural health, and traveling in South East Asia for almost a year, Chris started his journey in UX Research at AnswerLab. What led him into this field is what most UX researchers find compelling: an interest in embedding a human component into technology and having a role in improving people’s lives.

I talked to Chris in depth about the impact technology has had on our world and how user research can be instrumental in shaping our relationship with it. To read more about our insightful chat, continue reading below. 👇

Can you tell me how the research team is structured at AnswerLab and how you contribute to the process?

AnswerLab is a UX research agency — research is all we do. The majority of our employees are UX researchers, but we also have project managers who handle all of the logistics and work with our recruiting partners, and we have UX strategists who are our client relationship managers. Our clients are Fortune 500 companies, like Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc.

I’m a Principal UX researcher and I focus on emerging technologies. Part of my work is running studies and overseeing research on emerging technologies. I also meet with clients and strategists when we’re working on newer technology because we may require tweaks to certain methodologies or we might need to incorporate a different approach that we haven’t done before.

Throughout your research work in emerging technologies, have you found it necessary to develop or update any research methodologies?

There is a temptation in our field to get caught up on methodologies — but the right methodology is the one that’s going to answer the client’s questions. There’s very little that’s new under the sun. The only thing I can think of that is really new is conversational analysis.

The fact of the matter is that the tried and true methodology of individual research: getting together one-on-one with a person and going through an experience with them, is always going to be the core of what we do. It mainly depends on the client’s questions and the technology that is being tested.

Where I think things have been changing a bit is that context is more important than ever before. Everything from physical context — the environment in which the person is interacting with the technology, to the psychological context — people’s preferences and preconceptions.

We don’t necessarily change our methodologies, but we adapt them to take context into consideration. For example, video diaries allow us to actually see people using the technology in their environments. Contextual inquiry and ethnography are great for that as well, but video diaries also provide insights into changes over time — and they’re a lot less expensive than in-home interviews.

For some technologies, such as VUIs, tweaking certain methodologies also comes into play. Users need to go through the entire experience without you interjecting questions or asking them to think out loud. This requires a different level of paying attention to people’s body language and it requires an ability to observe objectively. You have to save your questions until the end and you have to be quite cautious in the way you word those questions, because when language is the actual mode of interaction, you can also inadvertently be leading your users.

For example, if I ask somebody how they would turn up the volume through VUI, they’re likely to say ‘turn up the volume.’ They wouldn’t necessarily tell me how they would actually say it if I wasn’t there priming them. So the choice of words becomes that much more important.

Where I think things have been changing a bit is that context is more important than ever before.

We are at a time where there is a lot of concern regarding the privacy and security of our personal data, some even calling it a new era of surveillance capitalism. How do you see user research addressing this concern and advocating for the user?

As UX researchers, we have a unique position as mediators between the users and technology companies who are frequently fast moving and optimistic. They can be optimistic to the point of being naive. They have a bias to move quickly in order to keep bringing new things into the marketplace. But they seem to easily forget that they’re accountable to more than just their investors. We UX researchers have the ability to uncover what’s going on with users and give tech leaders a sense of how important it is to listen to them.

I once did research with a group of people from different backgrounds responding to smart speakers and one woman said, “I don’t know if it’s because I’m Black or because I’m Southern, but those things never understand me.” This quote always gets a reaction because we’re talking about building a new future and we’re leaving people out of it. We have a responsibility to bring these quotes to our clients and show them how their technology affects real people.

What are some of the trends in emerging technologies that excite you the most?

It was actually a VR experience that first inspired me to want to get into this field because I realized it was a wide open space full of possibilities. I was using Tilt Brush, which you control via a cube on the top of one controller and a cube on the top of another controller, and you’re spinning the cubes and choosing your palettes from them. As amazing as it was, I don’t know that anybody’s figured out the design conventions around spatial computing.

I want to be a part of that process. We largely have design conventions figured out for two dimensions, but what would they look like in 3D?

In terms of things that are changing, VUI and AI represent to me a shift where it’s less about us learning the language of the computer and more about the computer learning our language. It’s up to the computer to learn over time what our behaviours and preferences are, and to provide us with an experience that’s individually tailored to us.

The shift in which technology is becoming more supportive of our human experience, rather than us learning to adapt to the machine, is what I find groundbreaking and exciting.

The shift in which technology is becoming more supportive of our human experience rather than us learning to adapt to the machine, is what I find groundbreaking and exciting.

Lately there’s been some pushback with our current relationship with technology. Fjord just released its trends and called out reducing the noise of our connected world as one of them. We are also at a time where it’s expected for VUI and AI to explode. How do you see our relationship with technology evolving over time?

My biggest feeling about the way people use technology is that it’s never going to be used the way we expect it to be used. And that’s why UX research is so important. People are always going to surprise us by using technology in ways that make the most sense to them. Remember when Facetime came out? People were saying we were going to have our Dick Tracy moment and communicate by video chat all the time. Instead, texting has become the primary means of communication.

My belief is that technology is not going to free us unless we’re very aggressive about pushing back on it. All of these technological changes were supposed to save us time and free us up, and yet we are less able to disconnect from work than ever before.

Don’t get me wrong. What we are able to accomplish with technology is astonishing! The creativity unleashed with design tools and musical tools is inspiring. We’ve seen huge gains in efficiency… but it’s also been at a significant cost. There are a lot of externalities. And I think that our mandate as UX researchers is to play a bigger role in being the voice of the user and identifying all the ways in which technology is having unintended consequences.

For example, there’s so much focus nowadays on getting rid of friction. I am frequently seeing in user research sessions where a pop-up message comes up and people just hit whatever they need to get rid of it. But very frequently, those pop ups are important things like legal agreements. Nobody understands what they’re agreeing to! Another example is Amazon’s one-click ordering. For some people it’s fantastic and for others it’s almost dangerous. We’ve removed too much friction and made things too easy.

In the future, technology is not going to free us and it’s not going to enslave us. Kranzberg’s First Law states “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” I think that’s a fair statement about the future. It will continue to change and advance, and in some ways it will make life much easier. In other ways, we will find that making things easier has unintended consequences.

People are always going to surprise us by using technology in ways that make the most sense to them. And that’s why UX research is so important.

The UX research space is continuously growing. Where do you find inspiration?

I think where I find inspiration from these days is the heartfelt belief that everyone deserves access to a future that is more equitable. And that’s not going to happen by default just by building things that are newer and faster. We need to build things more thoughtfully and inclusively.

There’s a moment of reckoning that’s happening and it’s exactly why I want to be working in tech right now. We’re seeing evidence of algorithmic bias and people not being taken into account. That means someone’s not being invited into the future.

My favourite book of last year was Future Ethics by Cennyd Bowles. I think it’s the most important book of 2018. As a field we have not taken seriously the ethical implications of our work. Most of us got into this because we actually believe that technology, when well-designed, can make people’s lives better. And I feel like we’ve been entrusted with something very important. We need people who are actually going to fight for the user.

…where I find inspiration from these days is the heartfelt belief that everyone deserves access to a future that is more equitable. We need to build things more thoughtfully and inclusively.

You’ve mentioned that now is the time to disrupt the disruptors and reclaim the promise of UX research. Without giving your talk away, could you explain to us what you mean by this?

Everybody’s running around talking about disruption and we need to get in their way. We need to be a positive source of friction. The tech industry has been running headlong into disruption, but without doing it thoughtfully we end up reproducing the same ills in our current society, but in a way that’s hidden behind this sheen of tech objectivity.

Take Uber and Lyft, for example. In a way it’s easy to pick on some of these companies, but the fact is that the taxi cab situation was so bad in San Francisco, we welcomed them with open arms.

It was a field ripe for disruption.

But then the disruptors came in without thinking about the externalities. Traffic congestion is up 30% and these companies aren’t even turning a profit, despite having pushed all of the responsibility onto their gig employees whom they just hang out to dry. So what have we disrupted? Have we changed things for the better? Or have we just changed things? I think it’s time to get in the way of the disruptors, and let them know it could make more sense for us to evolve rather than have a revolution. I’m not saying anything new here, but as UX researchers, we are uniquely positioned through our skills and our role to inform that conversation.

Everybody’s running around talking about disruption and we need to get in their way. We need to be a positive source of friction.

In terms of reclaiming the promise of UX research, myself and and most of the UX researchers I know, got into this field because we really wanted to bring the human aspect to human-centered design. We felt it was fundamentally important that we bring the voice of the user into consideration. And I feel like we’re moving further and further away from really understanding people’s needs and more towards helping companies make a profit.

Is that the path to a better future? I think the better path is doing more generative research that truly looks at people’s needs. Let’s come up with product ideas that actually address a need instead of doing usability testing to see whether your button gets more clicks.

Both emerging technologies and the ethical challenges associated with these, have provided us with the perfect excuse to dig deeper and do research that is more generative. We need to do research that is looking more at systems of interaction, contexts, unintended consequences, and ethics.

Both emerging technologies and the ethical challenges associated with these, have provided us with the perfect excuse to dig deeper and do research that is more generative.

I got into this field because I wanted to help technology companies create experiences that actually improve people’s lives. So this is a perfect moment for our field to step up and say: We can help with that!

Whether our background is in Applied Psychology, Cultural Anthropology, Design or like so many of us, we just snuck in through the back door… we got into this for a reason. We have the skills to understand people’s needs and in doing so, reclaim the promise of UX research.


Learn more about disrupting the disruptors at Chris’ talk on the Main Stage: “Reclaiming the Promise of UX Research” on June 7th.

Join Chris at Strive: The 2019 UX Research Conference

Tickets are still available for the Main Stage on June 7th and 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