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!