IxDA Berlin #67: The strategic role of UX research

Due to a state of general busyness, I had to cut back on meetups recently, but this month’s IxDA Berlin event was one not to miss, given that the line-up promised senior speakers on the strategic role of UX research. And it was an evening well invested, with plenty of wisdom about the strategic side of user research.

Image caption: Full house as usual, at the IxDA Berlin meetup.

I hope the presentations will become available one way or the other to provide access to all the detailed messages (maybe the slides, or even better seeing them featured in some other context again soon), but here are two key takeaways I would like to highlight from the 67th IxDA Berlin meetup:

  1. The impact of UX research often lies less in exploring users, but first and foremost in shaping an organisation’s user-centredness in general
  2. User research is not so much about feedback on an idea, but about using those ideas to trigger explorations of how people think and approach certain tasks in general

UX researchers are change agents

The talk “Establishing UX research in a digital product company” by Tam Lopez Breit, Senior UX Researcher at the startup Get Your Guide, told the personal story of the 15-month journey of a company’s first user researcher: from spending the initial month chiefly for getting to know team processes, to running today’s three-person research team, Tam shared her impressive effort to establish UX research in product from scratch.

Referring to Tricia Wang’s concept of “Thick Data”, Tam highlighted how important it is to remember that “everything is human about data”; that just having more data does not lead to better decisions. Picturing herself at work, she compares herself to the oracle of Delphi that Wang uses as a metaphor in her talk:

as the company’s researcher, every day in the elevator […], I am the oracle.

The presenter built her path in establishing UX research in the company on a three-tiered approach:

  1. Understanding the context; pinpointing the status of the company or a team on the UX maturity model (such as, for example, that by Keikendo) helps to gain awareness of the state of UX and to develop an action plan
  2. Knowing the actors; only when understanding how decisions are made internally, it is possible for the researcher to find opportunities and develop the right strategy to achieve buy-in on all levels
  3. Owning the story; by making all UX research available to everybody, both in immediate access to the data and to well-developed presentations, it is possible to “put a face to the numbers, make it human, make it personal”

The implementation was largely based on involving everybody in the research. From what the presentation showed, the researcher constantly “forces” the entire company to attend user sessions, watch live streams and recordings of research situations and to give feedback on the openly collected information. All the other brilliant advice aside, this was the most impressive part for me: the extensive degree to which colleagues are (almost forcefully – in a good way) exposed to how users think about their product is definitely worthwhile to reflect upon.

My favourite quote from the talk is what I believe is one of the most condensed summaries of the role of UX research when thought of strategically:

you end up explaining more how the company works, not the research […] you are actually changing company culture; you are messing with the balance of power; you are that person who is asking all those questions in the meetings.

While researchers indeed deliver insight into users’ realities, the ultimate value of user research lies in putting that knowledge into action. The value of research, Tam showed, lies before a decision is made – and the researcher’s role in reaching such decisions goes well beyond “collecting the right data at the right time”.

Research the user, not the prototype

Next up, Lindsey Wallace, Experience Researcher at Adobe Design Research and Strategy and a PhD in Anthropology (quote: “my professional opinion is: people don’t change that fast”), delivered her talk “Successful prototype sessions: little failure” – a lesson on the often misunderstood role of prototypes. At the risk of oversimplifying, its core message could be summarized that, when using prototypes for UX research, it is not the prototype being tested. It is the underlying assumptions being put to the test, not the design:

prototypes are not things that succeed or fail on their own, they are learning tools that teach us about users.

Not being able to share confidential research from Adobe, Lindsey crafted an analogy to bring her point across: she presented a hypothetical study in which a future restaurant owner puts their menu to the test, once by testing the prototype of the menu itself (gaining all kind of specific feedback from font choice to the taste of the ordered appetizers, but not really learning anything about the guests’ motives) and then – doing as it should be done – merely using the menu prototype as a vehicle to learn more about the habits and preferences of the participants. Choosing this analogy probably worked even better than sharing some real-life research example, and there were a lot of nodding heads to be seen when she concluded:

sometimes no research is better than bad research, which gives us high confidence in wrong information.

This is a tough one to bring across in many organisations: a research session is not successful when the user managed to click through a given task (this is the common misconception), but instead, “success is what you learned about where he struggles”. Only once this understanding is embraced, the true power of UX research unfolds:

research allows you to learn about how your users think and approach problems, you need this more than feedback on your idea.

User research is all about strategy

What made the combination of these two talks so powerful is their underlying message in combination: (UX) research is all about asking the right questions, using the right tools and embedding the activities in the organisational context to fit the processes, but maybe even more importantly to inject user-centred thinking into team culture.

Both presenters shared some of their disappointments when having to do research too late in the process, when project managers primarily seek affirmation that earlier decisions have been implemented well, whereas the true opportunity to improve a product and align it with peoples’ needs would have been much earlier in the process and likely only based on asking questions only a user researcher may help develop.

This, after all, is our value in that process.

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