Courage and user research

Courage and user research

If you believe, as I do, that the most meaningful advances in technology start from extraordinary human insight, is there an argument for more courageous experimentation in user research methods?

Consider that most ubiquitous of questions:

How are you?

You’ll ask it of your friends, family and colleagues probably hundreds of times a month, but how often does the answer you receive come close to the truth? As a question, it might seem fit for purpose in that moment, but it is unlikely to reveal how someone is really feeling.

Unfortunately, the majority of user research in digital industry continues to exist in that same twilight zone.

The questions and exercises companies use to understand their customers are influenced more by ritual than a desire for deeper understanding. There are, of course, notable exceptions but overall the balance remains tilted backwards towards organisations seeking to satisfy a perceived obligation towards user research rather than celebrating its transformative potential.

Igniting the desire for truth provides the best starting point for improvement in user research.

Until a practitioner cares about those they are trying understand, no amount of process, technology or data will reveal it for them.

If we want to be more courageous in our methods, we must first have the courage to admit how emotionally taxing it can be to sustain an interest in the intricate nuances of what makes people tick. That level of engagement draws deeply on our emotions and can have a multiplier effect over the duration of projects and careers. By recognising that – and dedicating time and resources to support practitioners as they strive to maintain that level of focus – we can keep a powerful sense of curiosity burning brightly.

In practical terms, that means paying attention to two things:

  1. Purpose. Motivation is nurtured by an ongoing sense of progress. Structure user research so that every resulting change to product or strategy can be traced back to its origins in user insight. Too often the connection to user research is lost during the product development cycle. It damages team morale and makes it more difficult to justify the value of further research. It should be part of the researcher’s responsibility and toolkit to ensure this link is not lost.
  2. Planning. Do less, better. Some of the best research I’ve seen has come from teams which are honest about the level of emotional engagement they can sustain. They review each project and aren’t afraid to lower the number of participants or increase the amount of time they give themselves to reflect and recharge between participant interactions.

With that foundational desire for truth established, there’s a wealth of scope for experimentation in methods. One of the many virtues of being at the heart of a community like MEX is hearing about all sorts of novel approaches. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are 3 examples which might spark your imagination:

  1. Liminal developed a series of props and environments to support user research conversations around trust in medicine. Using artefacts is not new in itself, but I was impressed by the extraordinary attention to detail. For instance, Liminal focused on ensuring not only the correct visual appearance, but also the right weight in the hand for the fictitious medicine boxes used to stimulate conversation with their participants. It highlights the importance of a multi-sensory approach. You can read about it in this post from our MEX journal, where Liminal’s work was picked as a case study of week.
  2. Aaron Garner, director at the Emotional Intelligence Academy, has spent much of his career advising security services on how to understand people’s behaviour in environments like airports. He uses a technique of searching for microexpressions. These are tiny flickers of emotion which occur in fractions of a second before someone begins to modular their response according to societal expectations. These allow practitioners to recognise instinctive responses and compare what is being actually felt with what is being said. He spoke about it at our MEX/16 conference and we talked about it in-depth on episode 18 of the MEX podcast.
  3. Swedish design studio TOPP has been using VR to prototype multi-touchpoint digital experiences, allowing them to test and iterate complex interactions with users much more rapidly than they would otherwise be able. When I spoke recently with TOPP co-founder James Haliburton (also a speaker alumnus of the MEX conference), he explained how the speed was allowing them to involve users more deeply in co-creation. You can read about some of TOPP’s work with VR on their blog.

Do you know of others? Please add them as a comment on this blog post below.

‘Brave new methods for understanding customers’ deeper motivations’ is also the informal discussion theme for our next MEX dining club event: a dinner in London on Tuesday 30th January 2018. It follows on from the breakfast gathering we held in New York at the end of November, where a diverse group of participants from the MEX community came together for coffee and cake to talk about multi-sensory experience design.

Get in touch if you’d like to receive invitations for future MEX dining club events and I’ll add you to the list.

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