Saturday, February 21, 2009

Want to increase the strategic relevance of User Experience within your company?

Would you like guidance from a panel of industry experts on how to increase the strategic relevance of User Experience within your company?

Please tell us about the situation where you work and how we can help via responding to a short questionnaire.

With your permission, we might discuss it during our panel session at CHI 2009 in Boston (see "Figuring out the 'one thing' that will move UX into a position of strategic relevance" for more info).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

User (experience) research, design research, usability research, market research, ...

A version of this post was published in UX Magazine.

I rather miss heading up a user research practice and managing and supporting user research personnel. Recently, I nearly accepted a position heading up a highly-respected user research consultancy looking to take things to the next level.

But should such a practice or offering be referred to as "user research" these days. The term is still in use (though the word "experience" often lies in the middle), but the word "user" can imply a much narrower conception of the practice than often intended. As I described in a much earlier blog entry, that was true when I was Director of User Research at Studio Archetype and Sapient; there, the label did not always communicate that we did more than only research of "users" and "use." And a recent conversation I had with an ethnographer who wanted to better understand "user research," something she said she did not do, revealed such preconceptions still exist even within the applied research community. (Use of ethnographic research methods was a big part of the "user research" we did at Studio Archetype and Sapient.)

In short, it is not always clear what label is best to apply to such a practice or consultancy. It is also not always clear what its ideal scope or focus should be or should become.

Lots of people conduct "usability research" these days, but the methods and approaches often used have lagged behind major changes that have occurred in the world of computing. In "Is usability obsolete?" -- an article we will be publishing in the May+June 2009 issue of interactions magazine, Katie Minardo Scott argues:
"Current usability work is a relic of the 1990’s: an artifact of an earlier computer ecosystem, out of step with contemporary computing realities. Usability can no longer keep up with computing: the products are too complex, too pervasive, and too easy to build. And in our absence, users and engineers are beginning to take over the design process. These trends demonstrate the growing gap between usability theory and commercial practice – the “new realities” of computing haven’t been truly embraced by the usability community. The trends are, at a minimum, making traditional usability more difficult, if not irrelevant in the new paradigm."
The label "design research" is used more and more these days. But when Yahoo! abandoned the label "user experience research" for "design research" two or three years ago, previous efforts -- some of which had been mine when I was in a management role at Yahoo! -- to involve user experience research in the early stages of product and service ideation and conception were undercut. As described by Yahoo!'s Klaus Kaasgaard, guest speaker during a user experience management course I taught last spring, the new label made people think that the research was only relevant to the later "design" phase of the product development process.

The narrow interpretations of the label "user research" at Studio Archetype and Sapient prompted us to extend the label to "user research and experience strategy." The narrow interpretations of the label "design research" at Yahoo! led Klaus to change the label back to "user experience research." But a much more significant change was made at Yahoo! more recently: a merger of the user experience research group and the market research group, yielding an organization named, "Customer Insights."

When I was in a management role at Yahoo!, we discovered that market researchers were encountering some of the same obstacles as our user experience researchers -- obstacles to being appropriately involved upstream in the process so to have a more beneficial impact on the company. So, we began to partner with market research in an effort to attain that involvement. During his guest appearance at my "User Experience Managers and Executives Speak" course, Klaus, now VP of Customer Insights at Yahoo!, spoke at length about the similarities and differences among goals and challenges faced by market researchers and user experience researchers, and about how important the merger has been to achieving such a strategic role. In an excellent article in UX magazine (Volume 7, Issue 2, 2008), Robin Beers paints a similar portrait regarding bringing together the market research and user research teams under the umbrella of Customer Experience Research & Design at Wells Fargo.

Is such a "coming together" of these two disciplines appropriate for every company? No, as implied by eBay's decision to split them up after they attempted to bring them together. There are multiple factors to consider when determining what is best for a particular company. But it is important to understand that great benefit can be achieved when the two work together.

In an October 2008 contribution to Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, Christian Rohrer provides a mapping of a wide range of research methods, some typically thought of as "market research" methods, that can help you to better understand their similarities and differences.

In the November+December 2008 issue of interactions magazine, Liz Sanders provides different insight via her map of "design research" (see the map below right), which you can click to enlarge). Here is how Liz describes the map's organization:
The design research map is defined and described by two intersecting dimensions. One is defined by approach and the other is defined by mind-set. Approaches to design research have come from a research-led perspective (shown at the bottom of the map) and from a design-led perspective (shown at the top of the map). The research-led perspective has the longest history and has been driven by applied psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists and engineers. The design-led perspective, on the other hand, has come into view more recently.

There are two opposing mindsets evident in the practice of design research today. The left side of the map describes a culture characterized by an expert mind-set. Design researchers here are involved with designing FOR people. These design researchers consider themselves to be the experts and they see and refer to people as “subjects”, users”, “consumers”, etc. The right side of the map describes a culture characterized by a participatory mind-set. Design researchers on this side design WITH people. They see the people as the true experts in domains of experience such as living, learning, working, etc. Design researchers who have a participatory mind-set value people as co-creators in the design process. It is difficult for many people to move from the left to the right side of the map (or vice versa) as this shift entails a significant cultural change."
Yet another map of methods was developed during the Netherlands Design Institute's Presence project during the late '90s. The image to the left (click to enlarge) shows the map, which requires a legend in order to identify which method lies where. In this image, the location of "rapid ethnography" is revealed, along with helpful information about the method regarding required expertise, time, staffing, and cost. (This "methods lab" used to be online, but I am now able to find it only in the 1999 book, "PRESENCE: New Media for Older People.")

The ratings in the above image remind me of ratings developed by Luke Hohmann for individual "innovation games" -- a variety of research methods employing collaborative play. (See image at right for his ratings for a game called Speed Boat, and see "What is holding User Experience back or propelling User Experience forward where you work?" for a sense of what that game is about.)