Unlock the Magic of UX Research

As a UX researcher with a background in anthropology, I’m guilty of taking for granted the value of doing UX research to inform good design. When your worldview – your entire way of thinking and seeing the world – has been shaped by social science, it’s continually shocking to be reminded that not everyone automatically sees the value of human research.

If you’ve been on the fence about whether to include research in your user experience design process, I’m here to help nudge you over to the other side.

Let me show you why UX researchers are so i nvaluable to generating good design by telling you about my home renovation experience. To put it simply, renovating my condo made it clear to me that having access to lots of data can only take you so far – what you do with that data makes the difference between truly understanding a problem and finding helpful solutions.

Renovation Mishaps

Last fall, my partner and I decided to update our condo, which was no minor feat, considering it hadn’t received a face-lift in over 30 years. After hastily choosing a contractor who was highly recommended by an acquaintance, we dove into the mess of design and construction.

Despite our need to add several unexpected changes to the project, the contractor (initially) always completed the work on time, on budget, and with quality workmanship. Bonus from the user experience point of view!

Not long after, however, errors started piling up. Putting on my UX hat, I noticed that my partner was becoming increasingly stressed about the renovations due to these mistakes. This didn’t bode so well for our overall user experience as clients of a renovation business.

We soon started to accumulate ‘data’ about our contractor’s performance, and it wasn’t all good.

He built, for instance, the opening to a new fireplace insert in the wrong spot, even though he and my partner had spent hours discussing where it should go. My spouse had tried to get ahead of the impending mistake after he noticed and corrected a pencil drawing the contractor had made (in his absence) of the fireplace opening on the wall. Unfortunately, the contractor didn’t notice these corrections in time.

Later, he mistakenly built an accent wall too far into the living room by two or three inches, obscuring the entryway view into the dining room and requiring an irksome rebuild. The flooring in one of the bedrooms was laid in the wrong direction even though we had previously agreed for it to flow lengthwise. The list goes on. What was going on for these errors to keep happening?

Research Lens

Looking through my research lens, I surveyed the preliminary qualitative data at my disposal: I listened to the numerous stories my partner brought back home about how text messages, conversations, language barrier, and other communication factors had affected the project.

I surmised, from this data, that these factors combined with their unique communication styles, had resulted in repeated errors.

Ok, so what now? They communicated differently, and that was causing headaches. From a user experience perspective, that doesn’t leave much room for finding solutions beyond asking them to document everything and be clearer in their plans.

Had we simply relied on the number and severity of these errors as data to prove the contractor’s incompetence, we would have missed an opportunity to dig deeper into the underlying causes of the mistakes.

I needed to better understand the root of the problem to find the best solution.

Insights Over Data

This is a risk that many organizations face when dealing with ‘big data’ about their users; relying on reams of data from user surveys and polls to understand their customers can mislead organizations into a false sense of confidence about knowing their users. What really matters, it turns out, is the why behind their behaviour, not so much the what that is revealed by volumes of data.

Having insight requires diving deeper into the significant meanings that belie a complex cacophony of raw data.

All too often, organizations prioritize business and technological factors over human factors in their design decisions, leaving customers and users with less-than-delightful experiences with their products and services.

Human vs. Computer Processing

The magic of UX research comes in the form of making insights from informed data.

UX research is about more than just compiling data to inform product and service design. It’s also about making insights about that ‘data’ – even outside of work hours – by seeing the world through a human lens. Understanding requires human processing – aha! moments, or eurekas – things humans are great at, but computers are not yet.

My aha! moment came when I realized the contractor and my spouse were engaged in the same sort of paradoxical power/deference struggle famously immortalized in classic anthropological texts about Javanese language and culture.

Bear with me. I spent a lot of time in Java as a novice anthropologist, so it’s clearly tinted my research lens.

Javanese people are famous for their complex language registers, where speakers address interlocutors of higher or lower social status in different registers to assert respect, deference, and politeness in varying degrees (it’s more complicated than that but for the purposes of this blog post I’ll leave it there).  

When someone is perceived to have used the wrong register to address someone who expects respect and deference, a subtle struggle to rectify that social faux pas sometimes results. This can be calamitous for maintaining social harmony in a setting where community is highly valued, like in traditional Javanese settings. Sometimes, the offended party will avoid interacting with the other to maintain their status, threatening social disharmony.

Digging Deeper to Get to Meaning

Similarly, in Toronto, where our renovation errors were unfolding, I surmised that the underlying issue wasn’t shoddy workmanship, nor was it communication. Rather, it was the social tension that resulted from a paradox that was difficult to resolve.

Both the contractor and my partner were grappling to maintain a professional social distance through polite language and deference, while also asserting power and prestige associated with their respective positions as homeowner and expert builder.

My spouse, as it turns out, was navigating a tension-filled space as both a client and property owner. In this role, he exercised considerable authority and power in the relationship with the contractor. He made the decisions as to how he wanted the place to look and function within the functional parameters permitted by budget, engineering, and feasibility – in consultation with me, of course. 

Yet as the client of a contractor, who was an expert in home renovations and project management, my partner also had to defer to the contractor’s extensive experiential knowledge and the considerable influence that came with his expertise. He also didn’t want to sully the relationship by appearing “too demanding” in his quest for perfection.

In the knowledge gap that emerged between my spouse and the contractor, combined with the competing deference they paid to each other as client-owner and contractor-expert, opportunities for miscommunication abounded.

When my partner became unsure whether the contractor had verbally understood at what height he wanted the fireplace to sit, he resorted to trusting the contractor’s expertise – of course, he wouldn’t want it to sit below the sightline of the dining table, that would be illogical! On the other hand, the contractor may have simply deferred to his client’s wishes, regardless of how illogical they may have been – clients have all sorts of strange design requests.

As with traditional Javanese cultural and linguistic practices associated with maintaining social status and harmony, my partner and our contractor were struggling to establish a social order between homeowner and renovation expert.

In the fraught silence, where power and deference cancelled each other out, neither party dared to establish confidently whether the other had understood their meaning. Notwithstanding a language barrier issue, where the contractor’s first language was not the same as my partner’s, both parties were slightly hesitant to question the other’s understanding.  

As is common in Java, and, arguably, in polite Canadian society, they were butting heads so subtly and politely that they couldn’t directly address the errors without fearing the loss of a harmonious working relationship.

From Research Insights to Solutions

It was through this insight that I became aware of an opportunity space that could improve the interactions between client and business and, therefore, the overall user experience of this contractor’s company.

Had I been preparing a final research report to share with the contractor about improving the client experience, I might have included recommendations for changing the communication process to honour their values of politeness and social harmony.

“I don’t want to complain to him one more time about another mistake!” my partner would confess to me. “He’s going to think we’re so annoying.”

I would have included tips on how to get to know the client’s communication needs – do they need precise, exact details laid out in writing to ensure interpretation is not left to chance? I may have also recommended an explicit summary of the client and contractor’s expectations, again to avoid misinterpretation.

Overall, the research conclusion would have worked out that the main hindrance to a smooth user experience lay not with the quality of the contractor’s work, an erroneous conclusion that may have seemed obvious owing to the volume of data, but with how expectations were mutually communicated between the client and service provider.

As it happens, my partner slowly adopted a more prudent and thorough approach to communicating with the contractor over time. In the last phase of the project, where we selected tiles for our kitchen backsplash, my partner had me come with him to the apartment when the contractors were away for the weekend.

He wanted me to lay out the tiles in the exact pattern I wanted so that we could take a photo and share that pattern with the tilers and the contractor. He then typed out a clear and concise text message detailing our expectations and had me read and edit the text before he sent it so that the contractor would not be left with any gaps. And when they went up, my partner was there in person to answer any questions from the workers.

After adopting this communication approach, fewer incidents occurred, and the relationship between client and contractor decidedly smoothed out.   

Research is a Lens

UX researchers come from various backgrounds, including psychology, anthropology, sociology, and Human-Computer Interaction. They apply the skills they have learned in other research contexts to the UX environment, using qualitative and quantitative methods, deductive and inductive reasoning, and, most importantly, human-centred approaches to inform experience design.

In my own case, as an anthropologist with ethnographic experience, I transferred my own tendency to view the world through an ethnographic lens to my work as a UX researcher and as a user of a home renovation company.

By participating in the renovation project, observing interactions between client and contractor (both ethnographers and UX researchers often employ the participant-observation method), and listening to retellings of those interactions, I was able to discern meaningful pain points – which are not uncommon – in the communication pattern between the two parties.

It is through consistent tuning of these skills in both work and daily life that UX researchers can best focus their UX lens. And with that tuning comes the value of UX research: finding meaning in the mess of data that life and product or service design drop at our feet.

Jessika uses her qualitative research skills to provide nuanced human insights into user experiences. She has most recently applied these skills for university and government projects at the Innovation Hub and the Department of Justice Canada.

Jessika is well versed in ethnographic methods, interviews, surveys, data analysis, and research design, and has years of experience conducting research in various cultural settings such as East Africa and Southeast Asia.

Jessika has a Doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Toronto

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