User Research: What is the role of social sciences in software development?

Stefi Speranza
Jun 3 · 7 min read

A sociologist, an economist, a graphic designer and an iOS developer walk into a bar. This is neither a joke or a riddle, but this might very well be an after office at Wolox.

Since the 50s, marketing and product management departments have long understood the relevance of studying consumer behavior to develop placement strategies. For some time now, there has also been a growing awareness in software development that the answer to a successful digital product is human-centered design.

Qualitative analysis, ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviews have been part of the social science repertoire at hand for ages but they simply had not sat down with designers and developers before.

By 2019, it is not surprising for the software industry that the success rate of any digital product relies on the understanding of why people behave as they do. Software companies know this is what differentiates their digital product by making a robust design and ensuring a loyal end user. But not everyone seems to be implementing it quite yet.

This understanding comes from what we call User Research and at Wolox it is a core part of user-centered design for every digital product we create.

WHY User Research, and WHY now?

Firstly, the maturity of the software industry is ripe enough, and furthermore, the exponentially of every industry in the 21st century requires a new mindset.

In the lifecycle of any industry, as the market matures and users go from early adoption to late majority, we gain clarity over two things:

1. There is an emergence of behavioral patterns.

2. The growing existence of demanding and knowledgeable users.

The software industry is now mature enough to take user research seriously and start implementing the analysis of these 2 points.

Scrum, Jobs to be done, and Design Thinking are some of the techniques that were being used, mainly by designers and developers, but the added value of social sciences’ knowhow became a strong partnership in order to add real value, and truly innovative.

Secondly, we mentioned that a new mindset is required in every discipline. Since, as most innovation theories suggest, we cannot think about linear growth any longer, we need to understand it as an exponential curve in this century.

Working at Wolox as a sociologist, I learned that our scientific research discipline had to catch up to the agile rhythm that the software industry requires. I can confidently say: no research that was useful 5 years ago can be applied today. If you look back 2 years from now, would you consider yourself the same technological user?

As a result, user research needed to adapt and evolve in order to fit into the fast-paced, exponential changes. This is why the fusion of agile methodologies with in-depth ethnographic research is a novel idea.

WHO introduced the user? A brief history

Software technology started as a military investment, with huge radars, and computational systems for data. After World War II, in the 50s, these technologies entered the financial industries, with black screens and code. Back then, software was not intuitive, or beautiful. It was a very specific operating procedure of programming instructions. The skillset in software was mastering a very narrow technique that comes from the engineering world. Only in the 70s and 80s, with the addition of personal computers and mobile devices, could software engineering start to relate to an end consumer.

Building products from the user’s perspective has been part of designer’s skill sets. They started to get involved in software and were the first to introduce and prioritize the user’s experience in technological products. This was the first clash between disciplines: computer sciences and engineering with diverse design disciplines, such as architecture and industrial design.

Therefore, we can conclude that designers are the pioneers of implementing human-centered techniques in technology. In fact, already in 1995, Don Norman — an electrical engineer as well as a cognitive scientist — “joined Apple to help with the research and design of its upcoming line of human-centered products. He asked to be called “User Experience Architect,” marking the first use of the term in a job title.”

WHEN do we research the user?

The Nielsen Norman Group, one of the most renowned references in User Experience Design, strongly suggests to implement user research “at every stage in the design process, different UX methods can keep product-development efforts on the right track, in agreement with true user needs and not imaginary ones.”

At the Wolox Experience Lab (xLab) we have developed a Discovery Stage to generate disruptive but meaningful solutions. The xLab Method starts by discovering what the user’s need is, long before the developing stage. We understand before Product Thinking, and Product Design stage.

Our product DNA goes through the xLab Method

We are experts in agile methods with our toolbox of human-centered design techniques. I am part of the Product Thinking team, where we come from diverse backgrounds, such as sociologists, communicators, economists, designers, and even lawyers and actors. By applying human-centered research, we can delve into a creative, yet purposeful, brainstorming that takes into account the end user’s true pain and motivation.

HOW? No longer divide and conquer, but mix and match

The study of human factors and ergonomics, combined with industrial and graphic design, as well as computer science, gave birth to a new branch of knowledge: User Experience (UX). This interdisciplinary clash has led to multiple jobs related to UX. Some of them are: interaction design, usability engineering, HCI (human computer interaction), UI (user interface design), and many other constantly evolving and borrowed methodologies. This matching of disciplines to improve usability has been growing at a tremendous rate collecting diversity of skills from the workforce. A search on Indeed.com for jobs related to user experience shows that over 6,000 jobs have been posted in the last 15 days.

We might say Apple has always been a design software agency ahead of its game. Bringing in a designer to improve the user experience was indisputably an innovative mindset. Even though in the late 90s, this was still an exception, almost 30 years later, we know it is a trend. The growing trend is for diverse disciplines to merge, boost their knowledge and adapt their methodologies to the digital world.

So what can we conclude from all of this?

Research is a skill that can (and should) be implemented by all the different disciplines involved in software development. It should be done as much as possible throughout each stage of the product building. In the digital world, exponential growth requires us to keep innovating and conclusive solutions do not exist. Cultural changes and habits are in constant transformation in the digital era, therefore digital products are never fully finished. The only way we can stay relevant is to keep responding to real needs, that are updated on a regular basis through a strong relationship with our users.

Here is an example that I personally love and believe you might identify with as well. Have you heard of a company called Netflix? (Nodding) Do you use Netflix? (more affirmative head shaking), could we call Netflix a game-changing successful innovative digital media company? Well, then you might be familiar with the Skip Intro button (Nodding and slow hand clapping). This example demonstrates that even for mature products, there is a need to update and iterate. Further understanding of the habits of their end users, allows them to constantly improve their User experience. For this apparent small feature (the skip intro button) there was user research behind it, a LOT of it.

This is why at Wolox we see the value of dedicating time to thoroughly research a problem, that might be solved in actual digital products.

Finishing thoughts

There is another huge value from disciplinary intersections, and this is the creative power of associations.

Daniel Mordecki, a reference in User Experience in the southern cone, holds a conference where he sustains that certain disciplines usually act just like teenagers: they have the belief that they are the first ones facing certain problems. Instead, Mordecki sustains that the mature attitude would be to recognize that these challenges are issues that arise from human behavior, and therefore they have been most likely solved in other fields of work.

Great innovations don’t only come from new and exceptional ideas, but also, from the alliance of experiences and the exchange of completely diverse disciplines that can be combined to solve new problems in a constantly changing digital era. No discipline has all the answers about how to tackle these exponential challenges separately, but we can surely create better solutions together.

Wolox

Wolox stands for innovation, engineering and working culture that transforms problems into solutions and ideas into products. www.wolox.com.ar

Stefi Speranza

Written by

Wolox

Wolox

Wolox stands for innovation, engineering and working culture that transforms problems into solutions and ideas into products. www.wolox.com.ar

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