User research. What next?

User research. What next?


This is part of a series of provocations to fuel discussions at the MEX/16 conference.  Follow @mexfeed for more, join the debate at #mexdesign16 or by posting your comment below.

Everything we do starts with users. At least, it should.

The efficacy of design is determined by our understanding of behaviour.

I have no patience for circular debates over semantics, but whichever moniker you choose to apply to this practice – be it UX, CX, service design or any other guise of your choosing – the quality is bound throughout by its relationship with user insight.

12 years ago, at the start of the MEX initiative, the process of user research was:

  1. Manual, labour intensive and biased by simulated environments.
  2. Designed to test standalone products and features.
  3. Siloed into individual processes, separating lab-based usability from field-based ethnography.
  4. Confined to a single step at the outset of a linear development process.

Thankfully, each of these aspects has seen iterative improvement.

Subscription-based user testing tools have improved the process and economy of testing at scale, and in more realistic settings. The practitioner silos are gradually being broken down, allowing overall insight to draw on a diverse, continuous spectrum from primary user testing to broad trends research. The wider move from waterfall to agile development has encouraged user insight to exist as an ongoing cycle rather than a single step.

However, there are new, macro challenges facing practitioners in this field. At MEX/16, we must look beyond these gradual enhancements and consider the case for novel methods.

  1. Testing in the gaps. Multi-touchpoint design, where two or more digital entities combine to form a single experience, will soon be the default expectation. At its most basic, it is is expressed in the relationship between, say, a smartphone app linked to a cloud storage service. Soon, it will be more complex: multiple digital entities, from wearables to intelligent buildings, woven into experiences spanning diverse input modalities, output methods and connection types. Are the tools we use today capable of recording user behaviour across such diverse digital topology?
  2. Support for new experiential dimensions. Today’s tools are biased towards visual testing of largely two dimensional screens. With the advent of immersive experiences such as virtual and augmented reality, haptics such as Apple’s Taptic engine and the rise of intelligent audio design, how can we examine user behaviour across all channels of sensory experience?
  3. Scaling for the dynamic era. User researchers have traditionally been curators who observe, filter and distill insight. How does the growth of artificial intelligence and its ability to personalise digital experiences on the fly change the role of the user researcher? Will curators instead become teachers, employing their skills to train artificial intelligence engines to respond to user behaviour at a scale impossible when relying solely on manual interventions?
  4. Maintaining competitive advantage. User research once represented a quick win: you gained advantage simply by joining the minority of technology companies who did any at all! Today, it is a default expectation. Future competitive advantage will come only by achieving a subtle combination of the best practitioner skills, effective and circular integration between research and action, negotiating management support and pioneering new methods.

What to expect at MEX/16

  • Rachel Liu discusses regional, generational and role-based subtleties observed in China, when working on a project for an English-language teaching course requiring insight from children, parents and teachers.
  • Ana Moutinho talks about user research techniques for an augmented reality experience.
  • Emily Tulloh looks at the challenges of conducting user research with young children.
  • Aaron Garner shares techniques for deeper insight, discussing micro expression observations used in security and interviewing.
  • Tom Pursey & Pete Law conduct a workshop exploring user research for experiences which touch all five senses.

See the full MEX/16 agenda.

Going further

Buy a ticket for MEX/16, follow @mexfeed for more, join the debate at #mexdesign16 or by posting your comment below.

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