User researchers work at the edge of technology, design, and everything that being human entails. We probe and study a dynamic world, using our skills to make the fuzzy tangible. For example, I often start with broad questions from the product team like, ‘How should we improve our software?’ and this can lead to various studies around Who are the users? How do they differ from one another? What are the things that they like, dislike, want or need from the software and why?
Answering questions such as above for an ever-changing world demands that we come up with new approaches to catch the slippery and the wriggling reality. Also, the outcome of user research usually feeds the creative process of designing solutions. For example, the result of the study on user types and needs, etc. would be used to determine what the design team should create next? So it is fitting that the theme for UXinsight 2020 is Creativity in UX Research.
To understand what being creative in UX Research means in practice, I talked to some fellow user researchers. Here are some of the examples and thoughts that came up in conversations with Hester Bruikman, Parisa Khanipour Roshan, Juulia Enqvist, and Bastian Althoff. Much thanks to them for lending me their time and ideas :). The examples are grouped into themes or phases of research.
Finding the right question
In the world of user research, there are rarely any wrong answers – only incomplete or perhaps irrelevant ones. In contrast, though, there are a lot of wrong questions. Leading questions. Dead-end questions. Biased questions. So it makes sense that we would need creative ways to get to the right research question.
One of the researchers got a broad brief saying ‘Could you conduct user research to inform our strategy on Accessibility?* Such open questions are a great start for user research, but they may hide the detailed must-knows that the product team has in their mind. So, the user researchers from this team got their product team together and asked them, “If you had the all-knowing user who could answer any of your questions in this room with you, what would you ask them about this topic?” The researchers wanted to get at specific questions of the product team and design the research approach accordingly. For the research not to end up generic, irrelevant, or incomplete.
Through this session, the user researchers understood that the product team wanted to know their audience, i.e., for whom is it that they need to create accessible design. And this was different than the initial question that the team had posed. Further, this session also helped the product team see that it is not easy to come up with the correct research question. Defining the research question together also made them feel like they were a part of the research.
Study method & data collection
“Using skill and imagination to produce something new or to produce art” is how the Oxford dictionary defines creativity. This combination of skill and imagination is usually what we need to set up a good user study, especially when the existing toolset is not sufficient for answering a question.
An indirect approach to get to deeper answers
One of the researchers I talked to was conducting user research within a financially depressed community. They wanted to find what could be the best technological medium to provide access to learning resources for parents, such that they could guide their children. The users were very engaged during the study, but when it came to technology, they would avoid any detailed answers. There were several reasons for this, including the users’ perception that they were not good with technology or that technology is for the ‘younger’ generation. Thus, the research was not providing any input on users’ experiences and preferences for technology.
The user researchers then came up with a different approach. Instead of asking direct questions on technology practices, which led to high-level answers, they asked the users questions on parenting (a topic they were comfortable with). Each day they asked the participants to use a different medium/tool, for example, voice recorder, writing, social media, etc., to answer these questions. At the end of the study, this approach enabled the researchers to have a much richer conversation about their experiences and preferences around technology than was possible earlier.
Actors in user testing
In another study, the team was testing a payment system using a phone, and they wanted to test the user behaviour and experience in different scenarios around the same. So they set-up a ‘store counter’ and asked the test participants to purchase various items at the counter. In addition, without telling the participants, they asked actors to come in during the study session and introduce distractions or interruptions representative of real life. These were, for instance, looking over the shoulder of the participants when they were paying (around privacy and confidentiality), or starting to talk to the person at the cash register (causing a transaction to timeout). Depending on the scenario, the user research team also would pass notes to the person at the cash register to introduce delays, etc. I found this to be a great way of simulating real-life context early-on in the process.
Communicating the results of a study is one of the most important phases, and perhaps that’s why I found several fun examples here.
Presenting Personas in documentary-style
One of the examples mentioned a study to find out about the different types of users for a system. The user researchers used the study findings to create a documentary about the personas they found. They hired actors to act out the personas and had a live interview with the actors which was recorded for the documentary. This documentary was then used as the ‘report’ to communicate the study results across the teams.
Popping balloons with disproved assumptions to communicate study results
In another example, the user researcher got the product team to write their assumptions on balloons. Each balloon represented an assumption. Based on the study findings, the person holding the balloon was asked to pop it or not depending on whether the study confirmed the assumption or proved it wrong. For example, one of the popped balloons was “Users understand the XYZ [insert tech jargon] feature”.
Einstein reportedly said, “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.” To me, this means that we actively need to carve out space for creativity in our everyday work. How do we go about it?
Almost everyone I talked to mentioned that being creative means stepping away from methods you are comfortable with or used to. Dane et al. suggest an approach to achieve this. In a study, they asked undergraduate students to generate ideas for real-world problems. They found that the students were at their most creative when
they were thinking in a style that is atypical to them, i.e., rational vs intuitive. So, if you tend to think ‘rationally’, i.e., systematically and based on previous experience, then try thinking ‘intuitively’ where you work on first impressions and gut feelings, and vice-versa.
One of the researchers said their company evaluates them on how creative they have been in their role as a user researcher. What an excellent idea! Research by Kremer et al. also found that encouraging employees to voice their ideas and promoting knowledge sharing within the organisation are the key success factors for fostering creativity and innovation.
In conclusion, I found that UX Research is a fertile ground for creativity at various points, especially while articulating the research question, setting-up your study, and communicating results. Thinking in a way that is unusual for us can facilitate creativity and help make our research rich and impactful.
We would like to hear your thoughts and ideas on the topic. Share them in the comments below.
And, for sure more Creativity in UX Research will be presented during UXinsight 2020. Be sure to join!
*Topic changed for confidentiality
- Wahl, D. Einstein On Creativity. (2007). Creative Creativity. https://creativecreativity.com/2007/11/11/einstein-on-cre/
- Dane, E., Baer, M., Pratt, M. G., & Oldham, G. R. (2011). Rational versus intuitive problem solving: How thinking “off the beaten path” can stimulate creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5(1), 3-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0017698
- Kremer H., Villamor I., Aguinis, H. (2019). Innovation leadership: Best-practice recommendations for promoting employee creativity, voice, and knowledge sharing. Business Horizons, 62(1), 65-74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bushor.2018.08.010