On UX Dept

“UX dept” is used to represent the gap between a product’s ideal user experience and its actually quality. The expression gives life to that gap and provides designers a language for perceiving and evaluating the real state and quality of UX experience in terms of the 4 emotional measures: functional, reliable, usable, and pleasurable. According to Aarron Walter’s “Hierarchy of User Needs,” which follows Maslow’s framework of Hierarchy of (Human) Needs, the functional measure lives at the lowest level of the quality axis and supports the increasingly qualitative measures: reliable, usable, and pleasurable; the latter sitting at the top of the pyramid denoting the ideal, target or “peak” experience.

This notion is interesting to me because it gives me a quality matrix to place my work against and aim for when designing a user experience. It seems the work delivered in UX focusses more on the first 3 floors of the pyramid, often sacrificing the best quality defining measure; the pleasurable. For the author of the article, Andrew Walter, “UX dept” only takes place when designers think an experience can or should be better. It is the result of “cutting corners” and making fast constraint-based decisions to the detriment of a pleasurable and best user experience.

— source: http://bit.ly/18UoFHL


Frog’s Research Learning Spiral (How the Why of data wins over the What)

As clients are becoming increasingly aware of ethnographic-ish research being an essential and integral part of the design process for a high quality user experience offer, it is important for us (designers) to learn an appropriate format for approaching and customizing research on a project basis.

Frog’s Research Learning Spiral, as David Sherwin names it in A Five-Step Process for Conducting User Research, allows us to think of research as not only a set of insight-focused methodologies and collaborative practices, but also very much so as a process of articulating and defining the focus area and scope of the research itself through its 5 learning stages: Objectives, Hypotheses, Methods, Conduct, and Synthesis.

I would like to focus on the the 3 early stages of the spiral. These are fundamental in situating the research area and addressing design questions with methodologies geared towards feeding our knowledge lexicon of people and things in their habitual contexts according to pre-defined objectives and hypotheses.

1 • Objectives focus on the framing of questions following the 3 Ws and an H structure: Who What When Where Why and How. These together help us define who the demographic user base is, what activities they might be involved in while using our service or product, when they would be engaged in such activities, where these activities would take place, under which emotional or rational states (why), and using which processes. These questions are in turn reformulated into simple statements of research objectives, which outline the scope of the research effort.

2 • Hypotheses are assumption packed opinions or suppositions we have about a product or service, its users, and the contextual settings in which the product acts, which are meant to be tested and challenged. Sherwin lists 3 types of hypotheses: attitude (what users would like to get out of a service), behavior (what users would like to do with the service), and feature (which feature users would most enjoy using).

3 • Methods — such as contextual enquiry, surveys, interviews, and benchmarking — can help prove or disprove these hypotheses by revealing key data about a demographic user, their contextual environments, and identify leverage points wherein design can affect their everyday and provide positive change or support. Other more participatory activities which involve probing users — such as diary studies, card sorting, and paper prototyping — can serve as experiential idea generating methods with a capacity for drawing design solutions and concepts that meet the user’s needs and mental models. Finally, evaluative methods — such as usability testing, heuristic evaluations, and cognitive walkthroughs — will demonstrate whether these ideas are effective, useful, and desirable.

[F]inding meaning in your data […] can mean reading between the lines and not taking a quote or something observed at face value. The why behind a piece of data is always more important than the what.” — Lauren Serota, Associate Creative Director at Frog Design

According to Sherwin, data tells us what and when users do things, but not why. Context is in fact king. Integrating such framework for user research helps provide us with the contextual understanding — the understanding of given demographics’ everydayness — for making more informed design decisions.

I am particularly interested in the name “learning spiral”: a looping process that doesn’t need to be lengthy, costly, and a unique event. It is spiral and has the potential of being a cyclical and iterative process, which can be applied as needed at different stages of a design process and with a different scope. That spiral from which I can learn allows me to investigate more specific areas of my users’ everyday by defining learning objectives.

While every research endeavour has a plan and objectives, i particularly found this interpretation because it gives importance to the planning and framing of research and integrates objectives definition as part of the research itself. Typically research seems to begin with contextual inquiry and interviewing right away as a recourse to inform the design approach and concept which does not necessarily end up being a solution that is desirable. Involving research participants in the framing of the research seems to be a more inclusive and humane approach that is bound to have a worthwhile and desirable quality.

— source: http://bit.ly/1eCoUyH

Ethnography in Design Practice

Ethnographic research is important when interaction designers start raising questions about the core values and place that technological tools have in people’s everyday practices. The methods used for understanding user behavioral patterns and cultural realities focus on interaction as inseparable from the environment in which it occurs. Rather than analyzing separate data points, ethnography restores actions within their contextual settings and examines behavior as part of a holistic system in which people, things, and the environment affect each other and intertwine with one another.

Ethnography in UCD

Ethnography can take multiple forms including: participant observation, contextual interviewing, and participant self-documentation; which touch upon the contextual, emotional, and behavioral layers of user-specific practices. (Payne, 2011) Through data collection and analysis, designers are better equipped at identifying leverage points wherein remodeled or novel products or services can have an effective place in users’ everyday lives.

On November 12, 2011, in an IxDA NYC workshop entitled “Ethnography and User Experience”, presenter John Payne, Experience Designer and co-founder at Moment Design, discussed how the application of ethnographic methodologies within design practices effectively uncovers user behavior and belief in situ, in turn influencing and reshaping a designer’s vision and intent. To demonstrate this research approach to design practice, the workshop included a 1 hour fieldwork in the, then, hype of Occupy Wall Street, for which the attendees were split into teams of 5. Each team listed their assumptions about the living conditions as well as the beliefs and goals of the OWS movement. Teams then collectively formulated questions that needed answers before arriving at the site. With 4 research methods laid out by Payne for the exercise – observe physical/digital traces, collect a cultural inventory, observe environmental behavior, and conduct semi-structured interviews – team members assumed the roles of facilitator, photographer/videographer, note-taker, and scout.

The results of the fieldwork proved to be successful in inspiring the attendees as they discovered how their assumptions about their hypothetical “users” – the OWS people– were either conflicting with and/or limited to what they had over/heard and read elsewhere. This exercise required that participants collaborate and set aside their traditional and comforting research practices. Each team presented their findings through storytelling and highlighted specific challenge/opportunity spaces wherein design can have an effective impact. They proved with the inevitably qualitative data that emerged from their observations and encounters that users are heterogeneous and carry varied perceptions, goals, and behaviors. Rather than generalizing users based on assumptions, ethnographic research helps understand heterogeneity and the patterns of behavior that links a people together. This new collective knowledge offers designers the potential to create hospitable and adequate experiences for users.

Digital Ethnography

To prove this approach applicable to everyday design practice, Payne ended the workshop with an introduction to digital ethnography, also known as Digital Ethno (Masten, 2003:76), which consists of traditional ethnographic processes enhanced by participant engagement through the use of digital products and services already preexisting in their daily lives (Rhea, 2006:19). This method invites participants to contribute to research which helps researchers transcend a priori knowledge they might have had about users by highlighting digitally recorded instances of user/consumer behavior in situ and over time (Rhea, 2006:21). Through the use of both traditional and digital ethnographic methods, research teams can access intimate aspects of people’s lives in ways that traditional methods alone can not.

While traditional ethnography entails observation and analysis, digital ethnography enables researchers to capture real-time situated data. While traditional ethnography is the immersive practice which once belonged solely to the realm of sociological research, ethnographic practices in a wider sense have become part of designers and marketers’ vocabulary and processes for identifying context-sensitive user patterns of behavior. This merging of practices (ethnographic research with design) has proven to be a rich source for innovation and empathic design.

Digital ethnography enables designers to identify gaps in users’ lives for which innovation can be fruitful, and opportunities wherein design can make an appropriate and effective impact. This method engages and encourages participants to contribute to the research at hand, making them co-authors of the creative process. The practice exploits the wireless network as an opportunistic space for documenting cultural patterns of behavior over time (Masten, 2003:77).

With the use of digital ethnography, accounts are externalized events in users’ lives that help explain and analyze reflexively the social nature of contextual behaviors and patterns; those in turn indicate possible opportunities for innovation that either complements, transforms, or enhances users’ relationships to their environments, to contextual events, and/or to objects. Ethnographic practices add value to the design process and incentive, and to the products and services which emanate from the understanding of user behavioral needs.

Cultural Probes

Cultural Probes (Gaver, 1999) are tools concerned with gathering evocative responses from participants in order to understand people in new ways and to reach their intimate behaviors and idiosyncratic thoughts.

Probes are both tools for research and vehicles for collecting data about the local culture of a given user group, that engage participants in self-documenting their everyday. Probes are positioned as essential ingredients to experimental design processes that are responsive and centered around the cultural understanding of participants. Examples of probes take the form of picture taking, self-mapping, postcard questionnaires, digital memo-taking, etc. making “the strange familiar and the familiar strange” (Gaver, 2004).

As probes collectively reflect informal and intimate data about users, they provide an understanding of the local culture and an insight into what sort of design interventions can add pleasure to users’ lives. The probes focus on the implication of innovation within local cultural settings and the experiential ideas that may emerge within this new knowledge-base.

The probes are aimed at driving new understandings of technology through speculative design. Speculative design extends the notion of design practices to include questions concerning the function of designed objects, the experiences that they provide, and the cultural context in which they occur. Probes are particularly interesting in data as inspirational. Varied facets of culture serve as inspirations for the design of new kinds of pleasures embodied within ambiguous, unfamiliar, and playful objects and experiences.

With challenging users through probing, designers can identify new opportunities wherein speculative design can enact a new understanding of everyday life through interacting with pleasurable technologies.

A final note

Design Anthropologist Chritina Wasson, in 2000 explains how ethnographic research in user-centered design is employed to better understand ‘how users do things and use products’ and what role technology serves in users’ work, play, or educational practices (2000:380-1). Ethnography made as part of the design process reveals what Wasson calls “a new dimension of the user.” This dimension recalibrates designers’ preconceptions about a given user group by guiding the design process and informing the emergence of intuitive ideas for UCD solutions and experiences.

Gaver, W., Dunne, T., and Pacenti, E. (1999).
“Cultural Probes.” Interactions, January/ February, pp. 21-29.
Gaver, W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., and Walker, B. (2004).
“Cultural Probes and the value of uncertainty.” Interactions, Volume XI.5, pp. 53-56.
Masten, D., Plowman, T. (2003).
“Digital ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer experience.” Design Management Journal, Vol. 14, No.2
Payne, John (2011).
“Ethnography and User Experience.” IxDA NYC.
Rhea, D., and Leckie, L. (2006).
“Digital Ethnography: Sparking Brilliant Innovation.” Innovation Summer 2006, pp. 19-21.
Wasson, Christina (2000).
“Ethnography in the Field of Design.” Human Organizations, Vol. 59, No. 4, pp. 377-388.