In my previous posts on User Experience (UX) methodology I have touched on sketching, wireframing and prototyping. I would be remiss not to discuss the most important factor in any user-centric design approach: user research.

Since the emergence of Participatory Design in the 60s and 70s design thinking has moved on from the physical to encompass the emotional and behavioural. Designers today create a context for experience* and user experience is an expertise that provides a user-centric and data driven approach, needed when designing appropriate and effective products in today’s digitally fragmented world.

UX is no new speciality, rather it is an umbrella term for processes and methodologies that have had their genesis in other specialities for a number of years. Human-computer interaction, behavioural and cognitive psychology, usability and user centered design: all influences on what we call UX, and all methodologies that have a focus on the user.

Ignore users at your peril

I generally work with publishers, and I often encounter a quite complex user ecology. To make a generalisation we usually design for a specific task – research. But our user base is complex. Domain expertise varies between the undergraduate, the postgraduate, the academic and the professional. Differences in subject area throw up variations in behaviour, down to the favouring of a tatty notepad over using the latest digital tools. There is a vast difference between an undergraduate accessing textbook content through a desktop computer situated at their university library to an architect accessing building regulations whilst onsite, through a tablet on a 3G connection.

We have to understand this complexity of our user base. The differences and commonalities between user types, mental models, motivations and triggers – all areas that as designers and UX practitioners we need to fully comprehend before we can design the appropriate collateral that combined, make up the overall experience and impression of a product. This can only be achieved by talking and listening to our users and UX methodology gives us the tools to do just that.

Crafting experiences for online research

One of the most important factors in our approach to UX is that we are involved with a projects lifecycle from start to finish. We have an integrated and embedded approach – our front end development team encompasses developers, UX architects and designers – this integrated approach ensures UX is a consideration in every decision no matter at what point a project is at.

At the preliminary stage of any project our work is predominantly requirement gathering. We do a raft of exercises and workshops with client stakeholders designed to sanity check business requirements, aspirations and priorities, making sure a project brief is created that all parties involved believe to be feasible. We facilitate workshops around our clients data, the earliest stage of producing a sites taxonomy: the information architecture and interaction model. The output of these collaborative exercises and workshops are the beginnings of the documentation that make up the ‘blueprints’ of a particular project.

Following on from these early requirement-gathering workshops we move onto user research.

Once we identify the appropriate testing and research techniques we recruit a user group that we test on throughout the whole production process of a site build. At the beginning of a project we use our user group to create personas defining common user mental models and user tasks. The insight we gain from our user testing can point to the relevance of tools and features, and how those tools are used. What motivates our users to use our product, how social activity differs between user types and an idea of device usage. This research gives a shared view on the typical user(s) of a product, a view we can share with all stakeholders. When decisions are made, they can be made within the context of understanding users’ needs and motivations.

During a project build we use our user group for comparative testing and prototyping, giving us feedback and direction on our interface design. We also carry on this activity post launch, checking benchmarks have been met and making sure a product is being used as intended, and if not, why and how? It is important at this post-live launch to be especially active – feedback forms and surveys, a look at analytics and a further round of user testing all make sure that the solution we have provided performs as expected and intended.

The image below is a snapshot of a few desks at the studio where I work – everyone works on a Mac, but as individuals we have different roles, we use these machines for different tasks. We bring our idiosyncrasies into our working habits. Our personal life bleeds into our work environment. All these desks are different, but we all use the same tool.

If we speak the same language we could have different accents, different traditions and inclinations. Localisms change the cultural meaning of symbols and signifiers with a short hop across a border. This is what makes people interesting, the differences, the ability to surprise and be surprised. And this is why we cannot make assumptions about our users.

User Experience challenges

There are challenges in the adoption of UX methodologies. One such consideration is cost. Research and development in any field is not cheap, and with UX research it is no different. Time and resource defines the extent and scope of our research. Analytics alone, although cheap to obtain, can only take us so far. We believe in a lean methodology – we keep our UX overhead as low as we can get it, but when it comes to user insight we want to do as much as we can, and we firmly believe that any quantitative data needs to be paired with more in-depth qualitative data that could be more costly to obtain.

Combating bias can often be the hardest challenge to overcome. I mentioned the importance of keeping an open mind – this was no throwaway comment. We all have bias, a favoured interface, a way of interacting we are familiar with. A prefered aesthetic, a cultural association …  all these factors add bias. Overcoming them is a matter of self awareness and by having the experience of being surprised one too many times. We all have our prefered solutions and outcomes usually for seemingly rational reasons but seeing your own expectations confounded and discovering insights previously hidden from you is the best antidote to adhering a little too much to your own predilections.

Keeping it real

I have been undertaking some user research in conjunction with the University of Sussex. Initially we have been conducting in-depth interviews with a cross section of student and academics. This research will hopefully point to areas of interest which we can investigate more thoroughly. Andrea Fallas, our UXA, will be publishing some insight from our research activity with the University on the Semantico blog soon.

This post first appeared (with some slight edits) on the Semantico blog.

*Hummels, Djajadiningrat and Overbeeke (2001)

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