Archive — User research
Since September, my main focus at work has been to carry out a comprehensive programme of user research for a project aiming to improve services surrounding Blackboard Learn, the University of Edinburgh’s main virtual learning environment.
I wrote this blog post providing a high-level overview of all the work that’s taken place this academic year. More detailed blog posts about each of the strands of research will come in due course.
This is been a brilliant project to be involved in. We’ve been given a lot of time and freedom to do large amount of research in support of one of the university’s most important digital services, used daily by most of our students, and many staff members.
We have made some really important discoveries. This work is ensuring that improvements are based on a strong understanding of users’ behaviour and needs when working with course materials digitally.
Check out this video, where I describe the work and some of the findings in a bit more detail, and keep an eye out for the forthcoming blog posts.
Personas are one of the most popular techniques in the user experience toolkit, but they also remain among the most controversial. It is often still unclear to some what value personas can bring, and how to avoid the pitfalls of bad personas.
This article brings one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of how to make good personas. It is a lengthy but must-read article if you make personas and want to make them work.
This article is particularly useful at explaining why obsessing over demographics is bad, and why you should instead focus on “thinking styles”.
Statements-of-fact, preferences, and demographics frequently serve as distracting barriers. They kick off all kinds of subconscious reactions in team members minds.
Dial in the feedback — Gregg Bernstein
Keeping it weird
Or, more accurately, stopping it being weird. This refers to the problem that most psychology research is conducted on people that are western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.
Tim Kadlec considers the implication this has on our understanding of how people use the web.
We’ve known for a while that the worldwide web was becoming increasingly that: worldwide. As we try to reach people in different parts of the globe with very different daily realities, we have to be willing to rethink our assumptions. We have to be willing to revisit our research and findings with fresh eyes so that we can see what holds true, what doesn’t, and where.
The hunt for missing expectations
Jared Spool tells the story of a bookkeeper who became frustrated using Google Sheets because it didn’t have a double underline function.
To keep [usability] testing simple and under control, we often define the outcomes we want. For example, in testing Google Spreadsheet, we might have a profit and loss statement we’d want participants to make. To make it clear what we were expecting, we might show the final report we’d like them to make.
Since we never thought about the importance of double underlines, our sample final report wouldn’t have them. Our participant, wanting to do what we’ve asked of her, would unlikely add double underlines in. Our bias is reflected in the test results and we won’t uncover the missing expectation.
He suggests interview-based task design as a way of finding these missing expectations. Start a session with an interview to discover these expectations. Then construct a usability test task based on that.
I recently ran hybrid interviews and usability tests. That was for expediency. I didn’t base tasks on what I’d found in the interview. But it’s good to know I wasn’t completely barking up the wrong tree. I plan to use this approach in future.
Keeping yourself out of the story: Controlling experimenter effects
How do you stop yourself, as a user researcher, biasing the results? An important topic for user researchers to consider. (It’s also an excellent excuse to re-tell the story about Clever Hans, the horse who everyone thought could count, until they realised he was simply reacting to subtle, unintentional cues from his trainer.)
I recently undertook some usability testing, where I was asking people to complete tasks that I didn’t know how to complete myself. This meant I was less likely to bias the participant. But it was a strange experience for me, and it made me less certain about how to conduct the test.
Understanding user behaviour for online learning recruitment
The University of Edinburgh Website and Communications team has recently been heavily involved in a pilot project to improve the journey of prospective online learning students, from investigation to offer. Read about our user research approach and how we ensured project outputs met the needs of users.
How to get better answers from asking better questions
Chris How’s tips on doing better interviews. This is essentially a text version of his session at UX Scotland, which I wrote about on the University of Edinburgh Website Programme blog.
User research myth busting
Bringing focus to our findings: continued user research for the API Service
This is the final blog post in my short series about the user research I led on for the API Service at the University of Edinburgh.
This post covers the second half of the research, where we brought focus to the detailed picture developed in the first phase, and began to prioritise the issues to help the API Service team direct their ongoing work.
The information architecture of libraries part 1: Dewey Decimal Classification
This article is a bit of a sales pitch, but I enjoyed this research into how intuitive the Dewey Decimal Classification is.
When user-centred design of public services is a risk
An exploration of the risks surrounding undertaking user-centred design. For me, the lesson is to put the same sort of effort into designing your research and your interactions with your users as you would into the product your research is for.
User experience research for the University of Edinburgh’s API Service
I have been leading some user research for a project at the University of Edinburgh to develop API Service. This post on the University Website Programme blog outlines the steps we went through in the first phase of the research. This included interviewing developers, running workshops, and developing personas and journey maps.
This has been a successful and rewarding project. It has been particularly interesting for me to do some UX work that wasn’t necessarily to do with a website. There will be a couple more blog posts about it to come.
The secret cost of research
A belter of an article on why it is difficult to persuade people to undertake user research:
Research is simply asking questions about how the world works. And asking questions about how the world works threatens established authority.
I especially love the section “Bad research is good theatre”:
Focus groups look like how people imagine research looks. In a special room, controlled. But just because you have a 2-way mirror doesn’t make it anything more than a tea party. Actual ethnographic research happens where the people you’re studying do the thing you want to learn about. It’s often unsatisfyingly messy and low tech.
Fake research makes people money, and it makes people in charge feel good, but it’s useless and potentially dangerous to a design project.
So how do you get decision-makers to see the light? Understand them as people, like a good UXer should!
Facebook, please just hire one normal person
The 9 rules of design research
One of the hardest things about design or user research is convincing people that it actually needs to take place. That is especially maddening when working for an research organisation.
(Researchers themselves are sometimes the most reluctant to undertake user research before spending serious amounts of money on ineffective websites.)
So this snippet, among a series of useful rules of thumb, made me cheer. 🙌
If you’ve ever worked with a leader who was resistant to doing qualitative research as part of a million dollar project, ask yourself whether they would skip doing their own research before buying a $50,000 car.
Level up your user interviews: lessons from the master, Louis Theroux
How following Louis Theroux’s techniques can improve your interviews as a UX researcher.
An entertaining post with some good advice as well.