The Spaces Between Things

When I was in elementary school, I learned about using negative space in my art work. The idea of focusing on the spaces between things, rather than focusing on the subject of the piece was completely novel to me, shifting my mindset of how art should be done. Rather than taking a piece of paper and turning it into a picture of the sun, I imagined the sun and made it fit into the piece of paper.

Today, we had a client in town for a dedicated period of time to develop an in-depth protocol – that was the subject of her visit. A multi-method ethnographic approach, we needed to wade through the complexities of social dynamics of the commercial environments of our potential study participants. We also needed to consider the almost endless possibilities of sample permutations. Rather than being able to select our participants, the “recruiting” approach centered on work sites, not necessarily individuals, adding a layer of challenge to identifying who we speak with.

Beyond the recruiting challenges, we had to design into our study other uncertainties. Not everyone would be able to devote the desired time frame to speak with us, for instance. After two days of brainstorming, distilling, and documenting the protocol, we all decided we needed to step away from the process and take a break.

We decided we needed to stop focusing so intently on the subject of her visit, and start to look at the space around the subject of her visit. We decided to shift our attention to mental replenishment, just for a moment, so that we can re-center on the topics at hand. So we had a brainstorm while we got pedicures.

Sitting in our chairs, we selected our massage settings, briefly discussed our color selections, and any odd reflections on our feet. Feet are funny, personal parts of our bodies! In our mini-break we also took the time to observe our research selves as we developed the protocol. We spent some time discussing the need to step back, take a moment, and examine the in-between spaces that appear between the doing of work. In it, we shared thoughts on what it means to be a studier of people, and how much mental energy it requires.

We reflected on a few areas that require looking at the in-between for others, so that they can understand the actual subject of the piece. They are:

1.     Describing how we will learn about people. To be good at your job, you need to care about what you do. To be the kind of person that cares about what you do requires quite a bit of mental and emotional energy. This energy, which I hope to talk about in another post, is channeled into helping others understand what needs to be incorporated into a study to gather necessary data points. Often times in research, we go through the motions of gathering data, but don’t spend nearly as much time as we should in helping the consumers of research understand its power and limitations.

2.     Taking time to observe people, generally. It’s a common “hobby” to people watch, especially if you find yourself sitting in a café alone with no laptop, but it’s our job to people watch. As we dried our nails, we suggested to our client that while she’s at the airport she take notes on the people she sees around her. As we discussed what she could do in taking notes we added “but it’s really hard to turn this people watching lens off.” Meaning, simply, that once you start to observe people with a purposeful eye, it’s more challenging not to. In reality, once you become an observer of people, you struggle not to be one.

3.     Being honest about not liking the same music. We heard a song by Grimes come on in our café, and while I quite enjoyed it, my two colleagues were annoyed. We spent some time talking about her music, and then just music in general in coffee shops (where we were). For some people it’s a distraction and for others it’s a way to get the mind working. We examined our own relationships with music in public places and how we manage it. At that point, one of us put on headphones to drown out the noise to work,  one of us turned on our own music, and the third simply enjoyed the atmosphere.

During this week of protocol development, we reflected on the spaces in between the work we were doing. This helped us establish confidence in our protocol and feel more deeply connected to the work we were doing. Rather than being laser focused on the task at hand, we looked at the in-between moments during our week as a point of inspiration to get our work done.

The Importance of a Human-Centered Research Philosophy

A couple of weeks ago we presented at UXPA Boston 2016 - an awesome conference with over 1,000 attendees! We had a great time with all the speakers and catching up with old colleagues. We presented our thoughts on the weaknesses of forming study designs around method, sharing several alternatives to shift the dialog of research in organizations. One of our alternatives is to talk about a personal research philosophy. With a sound, communicated philosophy, one that's public and known to the business, we can begin to move away from crafting research approaches by simply focusing on the data collection method.

As a result of this presentation, some folks have asked "what is a research philosophy and how do I begin to articulate my own?" This prompted us to reexamine our own philosophy and evolve it to a state that we presented for the first time on Monday. While it's still fresh in our minds, we were able to gauge the reaction and questions from the audience so that we may better improve our message.

Because we are human-centered researchers, our philosophy must rely on a truth that applies to everyone: people exhibit observable behaviors. It's not simply our study participants that exhibit behaviors, but it is also the internal teams that we work with. Because we know we can rely on, to some extent, these observable behaviors to help us understand people, we use this as a basis for how we form our studies. 

Our philosophy is simple. Our job is to support the people we want to observe in being able to exhibit their behaviors. As such, in crafting the instruments of research, we look at the context of inquiry, the activities that will illicit candidness, and the dynamics that feel socially sound. More specifically, in each research study we aim to:

Represent the Context. It's all too often that researchers are tasked with pulling a research process into a lab setting or through automated/remote data capture tools. While there is a time and place for these tactics, the richness of true life is lost in the contextual compromise. There has always been dialog in our field about the importance of context, but in practice contextual inquiry and ethnographic research are seen as outlier approaches worthy of special situations to warrant its need. We argue that context is everything and must be central for us to truly understand people. Study-rich contexts should be the norm, not the exception.

When we do research with participants, we want to be in their place of operation (whatever that may be). The same applies to teams. We do in-person meetings, we love getting tours of office spaces, after a client meeting we hang out at the cafe down the street that the design team might go to. 

Use Expressive Activities. People are emotional beings, but not always articulate beings. We focus on helping people pull out their emotional selves in conversations so that they may feel more comfortable in sharing their wants and needs. We borrow techniques from psychology and therapy (but of course with severe caution) that are often more creative and engaging. Rather than centering the conversation around the client's desired topic at hand (say, their offering), we urge teams to abstract the conversation to a level that is related but not direct. People might have a more challenging time discussing how they make investing decisions with our client's online tools, but they may have an easier time talking about decision making for their household, generally.

Working with teams, we also try to use activities that keep the teams engaged and ready to share. We assign homework assignments before most workshops, use game mechanics, storytelling, and other interactive techniques to help teams not simply articulate how and what is important for them to get their work done, but also to share deeply with their colleagues.

Reconstruct the Social Dynamics. Individual, dyad, group - these are the common social constructs considered in crafting research studies, but in focusing on the construct based on sheer sample quota, we may lose out on the true social dynamic needs of a study. Some studies require a reality check (maybe a good friend to keep the study participant honest). Some studies require the input of both decision-makers and doers, other studies might be so personal that even the presence of a researcher is too wrought with bias. We make it clear that dynamics are fundamental to a study design and should not be overlooked. 

When working with teams, we use a number of approaches to disarm and encourage a more socially equitable environment. One of our favorites is "shoeless analysis." As a team returns from the field with their data and stories to share, we encourage everyone to remove their shoes. It shifts the dynamics of the team, disarms, and empowers at the same time. 

Crafting your own philosophy needs to mean something to you. Ours is based on a fundamental belief that our job helps people share their experiences. If we are not able to do this we haven't done our job well. When you have crafted your own research philosophy, you cannot simply stop at communicating it. You have to see how it turns into deliverable mechanics of a research study, and how it maps to the tasked work at hand. 

What a philosophy provides is a beacon for your work. There are moments when you will not be able to execute a study design as you'd ideally like, however, you will have something to point to so that others may understand how best to use your skills for the business. 

We would LOVE to hear about your research philosophy and how you communicate and execute on it. Please send us your own! 

User Experience Research is Better for You than Your Offerings

Standards and definitions are often unifiers for a field of practice. Common approaches, philosophical roots, and success metrics operate to pull practitioners together so that they may understand how they fit into a broader business context.

 User Experience (UX) research is uniquely not unified in this way. We have varied definitions of who we are, how we do our work, and what it means to have done the job well. Personally, I love that our field operates like this – it gives us even more of a qualitative edge. We are skilled at managing and communicating the ambiguities of people’s lived realities – and we can’t always put a number on how we come to knowing and leveraging those realities.

Without such concrete boundaries holding our field together, the reaction can sometimes be to establish our value with ROI or other quantifiable metrics. Mapping the outcomes of research directly to a design decision, that then affected some kind of change in user/customer behavior is sought, but damn hard to pinpoint. In parallel to the charge for these quantifiable metrics, is the demand that UX practitioners operate more like arbiters of design decisions, ushering cross-functional teams through the mess of creative energy. 

The dialog on our value needs to shift toward a more human-centered approach. Right now, we measure the distance between old offering and new, as observed through behavior change. We are measuring the entire value of the User Experience team through a single factor of the team’s potential impact. The offering is touched by so many hands, and often gets to the UX team late, so what are we measuring when we use behavior change as the metric?

This is not to say that we should not look at behavior change as a success metric. But, it would be more meaningful if it was internal teams’ behavior changes, not users’. As such, User Experience’s impact might best be unified and measured through an HR lens. User Experience teams can impact company culture greater than it can impact offering outcomes.  

As an industry, we should set the expectation that our work should be considered across various cultural factors, such as communication, wellness, and performance. In more detail:

 1.       Communication. Well-executed research is able to pull together cross-functional teams, resolve debates, and establish internal folklore about users. It also can do this for the internal team. The work it takes to align teams on research questions, discuss identifying criteria for participants, and share research findings all rely heavily on communication skills. Researchers are fabulous communication facilitators between and among teams, and their value is probably best measured by their ability to make the collaboration points meaningful.

2.      Wellness. The time and space it takes to develop a credible research study allows teams time to reflect on the work they are doing. Rather than operating on auto pilot, User Experience research studies give everyone a moment of pause to think more empathically about the user. Introducing more meaning and context to the work that is being done has profound effects on employee emotional wellbeing.

3.     Performance. When done well, research has actually demonstrated to pull together creative teams more effectively than heavily process-based approaches. The abstract nature of User Experience research, being more qualitative in nature, tends to encourage teams to seek more points of convergence along the nebulous creative path. Research becomes important milestones along a project, and the scope of that research can reveal if a project is doing well, behind, or perhaps becoming asynchronous with other parallel processes.

 The way we should value User Experience research shouldn’t fall solely on its expected outcome, this will set our industry up for failure. If we look at our success more through the eyes of an HR perspective, we might have more room to express our value to the business, but also give us the freedom to use our skills for internal betterment, not simply offering betterment.


"Coming Soon..." - practicing accountability

Accountability is a fitting topic for two freelancers working together on logistically complex projects with often ambiguous interpretive processes. As we embark on BLOGGING, I thought it would be best to avoid a "coming soon" post that leaves a too-predictable cliffhanger - no, it won't be here soon.

I wanted to open this blog with a post on accountability. Arguably, this blog will be the most back-burner task we have on our list. Keeping ourselves accountable for the content we put out into the world will be important.

No accountability secret sauce exists for us other than having a mindset to look beyond the many solutions out there that hold us responsible for the work we do. Sure, we make checklists, stay up-to-date with calendars, ask for feedback and set deadlines. However, there's a lot that we don't have evidence for that keeps us on top of our game. 

Accountability does not simply involve the doing of things, the completion of things, or the proof that something is being taken care of. It involves having the mindset to offer something to others and ourselves. Here’s what we strive to do:

1. Imagine the narrative. Rather than understanding our tasks by their completeness and quality, we think about them in relation to other parts of our lives. By contextualizing tasks to a broader set of priorities, it's easier to picture driving them to completion. We like to think of work in terms of "Fun and Gains." If we’re getting neither enjoyment nor tangible benefit from the experience, it's likely that we won't feel the need to be accountable. 

2. Be present for others. When we work with clients, partners, and peers, we are placing some kind of burden on them. Whether it's because we’ve asked for their collaborative energy, told them a story to solicit support, or cracked a joke expecting them to laugh, we do our best to be mindful of what it is we are requesting from them in that interaction. If we don't fill the world with noise (the sound of our own voices), we might gain something in the end.

3. Be curious, not judgmental. While this principle can be considered in all contexts, in reference to accountability its focus is on our treatment of ourselves. If we are having trouble driving a task to completion, we don’t dive deep into feelings of guilt or resentment. Our goal is to wonder why the trouble exists, and work on that first. Sometimes when we are hitting a wall with a deliverable, it’s because we are overworked, bored, or need some inspiration. Taking some time to tap into fulfilling those needs usually gets us to the point of moving forward.

With all that said, stay tuned for our next post. In the meantime, we would love to hear your thoughts on how you stay accountable to yourself and others.