“We are going to become increasingly disappointed with our progress if we just keep doing all of this back slapping that we’ve become so accustomed to.” – Whitney Hess (IA Summit 10 Keynote)
There was a time, back in the early 1990s, when almost everyone involved with UX research had a background in Psychology. Back in those days, the term “User Experience” didn’t really exist, and the nearest discipline was Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Back then, you learned about new developments in the field by reading long, boring looking photocopies of journal articles and conference proceedings. Things were different. There was a massive gulf between the theory-laden academic researchers and hands-on web designers.
I don’t for a minute want to go back to those days – the quality of design on the web was far lower. Most websites were ugly and hard to use. But, for all its flaws, the HCI community knew how to share research findings effectively. This knowledge has been massively diluted the transition from academia to industry.
When you read about UX research on the web these days, most reports have more in common with a press release than a piece of Psychology research. If it’s on a fashionable topic or if it’s reported by a famous figure, it’s reblogged and retweeted a vast number of times, without critical evaluation. This is bad.
In “proper” Psychology research, you always…
- Ensure the study is reproducible: you should report your study in such detail that anyone, anywhere can reproduce it and independently analyze it for its strengths and shortcomings. This is the cornerstone of all good research, and I can’t overstate its importance.
- Clearly explain all the shortcomings: you should never gloss over the weaknesses in your study design. In fact, you should focus in on them. It doesn’t matter if your study itself doesn’t deliver interesting patterns, so long as you explain what went wrong and the weaknesses in your experimental design. “Failed” studies are still very useful to read about, as your peers can learn from your mistakes.
- Define your variables: even industry standard terms like bounce rate are defined differently, depending on who you speak to.
- Share the data: interview transcripts, data logs, everything goes into an appendix or somewhere online where people can critique it. Never hide behind percentages, and never, ever dress up small-scale qualitative usability studies as more than they really are. Even if you use an eye tracker.
- Never cite a secondary source without reading the primary source: for example, if you want to refer to the famous Jam buying study in Barry Swartz’s Paradox of Choice, you go read the primary source (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000), critically evaluate it yourself, and then reference both primary and secondary sources in your write-up. It’s your responsibility to do this, to avoid misunderstandings being amplified and rebroadcast.
The fact is, UX researchers in industry are never going to follow all of these maxims, because they can’t. They’re NDAed or financially motivated to keep at least some of the details secret. They’re probably not even given the time to write up their work in this level of detail for internal use. This is the reality of industrial research, and I’m not arguing that it needs to change.
My point is that you need to be highly aware of the shortcomings of the information that’s shared in our industry. Many of us are living on a diet of press releases and ‘top ten tips’ articles. The “UX Myths” meme has gained some traction lately (mainly thanks to ZoltÃ¡n GÃ³cza & ZoltÃ¡n Kollin), which is good, but you shouldn’t rely on soundbite articles to tell you why other soundbite articles are wrong. If you do this, you’ll always be on the back foot.
You may not consider yourself an Applied Psychologist, but if you’ve ever designed something while thinking about user behaviour, then you are, by definition, an Applied Psychologist. You’re just not necessarily a very good one. Yet.
Great article Harry.
Totally agree with the fact that as designers/developers/UI professionals, we seem to be relying more and more on quick-fix lists and tips & tricks, rather than sound, grounded research.
Another thing that has started to worry me is the growth of the “trends” lists (such as “UI trends for 2011”) – surely things like this just end up becoming a prescribed destiny?
Completely agree with your points here. On a related note, I think we should also recognise that the formal education that was central to this kind of role in the past has huge benefits. Though not all of us have the time or money to go and get a degree or MSc in Psychology to support our work, we should certainly read as much as we can to better understand the theory that underpins a lot of what we now call UX.
As someone who came to usability and UX from a web / IT background, I find a lot of my reading these days is specifically in psychology, and particularly cognitive psychology.
100% agree. If the field of UX is to gain more credibility and mature in the way that psychology has as a science, it needs to embrace more of these disciplines that you mention.
As part of a final project with an interdisciplinary team we are designing a new interaction and evaluation for a 3D medical tool. To start the design we agreed to look at literature and one of my team members that has an electrical engineering background asked why we should look at literature in the first place. Since I was trained in HF Psychology/Engineering this question seemed odd and rather difficult to answer. It hit me as a reality that as HCI professionals come from different backgrounds, not all will have a training that prepared them to do usability testing and understand the users. They might understand the technology and be in the cutting edge in that area, but the lack of behavioral training will show when that technology has a hard time being adopted in the mainstream.
A good solution might be not only to arm yourself with tons of cognitive psych literature, but also to reach out to the community. There are tons of researchers that are eager to share their two cents when it comes to UX and HCI design!
Great article Harry,
I find the trendier end of the market (e.g. usually the practitioners who call themselves ‘UX’-something, don’t have a degree in a related subject and usually work for an agency) tend to dismiss research findings when they run counter to whatever design trend they happen to find attractive that month.
One particularly irksome example is the ‘we-want-to-design-long-pages-because-everyone-is-now -doing-really-long-pages-with-really-big-images’.
On that note, UXMyths j’accuse: http://uxmyths.com/post/654047943/myth-people-dont-scroll
Note the seven ‘studies’ they cite. Does a single one meet the criteria you stated in your article?
Great article Harry. I would heartily advocate becoming well grounded in psychology, avoiding fashions and being diligent with references.
This education doesn’t necessarily need to have been gained through formal education, but anyone these days has access to research papers and great advocates such as yourself.
I would also say that we all, potentially, are born with the necessary skills to conduct user research; Empathy, active listening, a sense of curiosity and common sense are all key skills that should be developed.
In fact, one person come to mind that is one of the best researchers I have every had the privilege of meeting. As far as I am aware, he never read any books about the subject, has no formal education and never attends conferences. He felt that they all got in the way of clearly thinking about the subject at hand and impinged on his creativity.
My conclusion is that if reading psychology gets us closer to a better understanding of our fellow (wo)man all the better, but it’s not the only path.
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I agree too! I’ve been writing articles on old and new research in psychology that applies to HCI, and giving talks on the topic. Good news: The articles and talks are very popular. The bad news: A lot of of what I consider the basic research is unknown to a lot of people who are designing interfaces. I’ve started on my next book which is this exactly! (100 Things Every Designer Should Know About People) which will cover foundational and new research in psychology applied to HCI.
So keep spreading the word. Thanks!
Thank you for writing this piece. As I am pursuing my masters in Information and Communication Sciences with an emphasis in usability testing, your piece is relatable and relevant to many of the courses I am taking. It explains why my professors assign what they assign. As Simon Sinek would say, it starts with why. Thank you once again Mr. Bignull for your insightful piece.
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I agree that the industry has changed and we are now more and more relying on quick insights to get us started rather then â€œproperâ€ up-front user research. Although, I also believe that some of the UX practitioners became well too navel-glazing and wouldnâ€™t, or couldnâ€™t, depending who you talk to, make a call on what would be the best way forward without a hefty discovery phase. It felt as we were refusing to use/trust our own experiences and we just had to do the same type of research again and again. A few years back it got so bad that it simply alienated other team members and I saw more and more rifts between user experience people, designers and front-end developers all blaming the other for not delivering fast enough. At that point I think that we (UX) were at risk for being sidelined and that would have been worse than making a call based on experience and then move on.
It also seem far to say that things like A/B testing or multi-variant testing werenâ€™t that common so unless we did research up-front we had nothing to fall back on, and yes, we often got the blame for solutions that didnâ€™t work even though we had banged our heads bloody saying that we need more insights to make this work. In most case I would advocate getting it out there are fas t as possible; learn from it and keep iterating it real-time.
For me UX has always been about making it look simple and being the glue between creative and technology but now we have more peers to work with. Not everyone has access to planners, creatives, user researchers, business consultants and strategists but personally Iâ€™ve grown very fond of the blended mind and I have to say that it has certainly enabled my team to create much better solution.
Anyway, today everyone talks about user experience so again we need to step up and (re)define the space we are working within â€“ we must keep moving â€“ society change, our clients demands things faster, technology certainly is pushing new boundaries and if we refuse to keep up we will still be banging our heads bloody.
Keep it up all you great people out there.
Marcus â€“ Global Head of User Experience at LBi London.
Harry, if you don’t mind I would like to add another bullet point to your list which I think (and I hope others would agree) is very important:
In “proper” research, you alwaysâ€¦
Follow “Code of Conduct, Ethical Principles & Guidance” (published by The British Psychological Society)
Sadly, from my own experience not many UX practitioners are aware of it.
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