I was recently thinking about the difference between the Business Analyst’s research work and the User Researcher’s. I argued that this largely lies in the fact that BA’s chase after a single truth, a neat and tidy version of events based on ‘facts’ to plug the holes in ‘what we need to know’. URs on the other hand have open minds to multiple versions of the truth, acknowledging that everyone has a uniquely different set of experiences, perspectives, opinions and consequently different versions of events. Social Psychologists call this ‘individual differences’. Which is why Social Psychologists tend to prefer qualitative research methods: you can’t reduce — reify — human minds and behaviour to a number. Well, you can, and lots of people do but you don’t have to believe them!
The other differentiator is ‘experience’. BAs tends to focus in on ‘user needs’ (‘what do you need in order to do your job better, faster, more accurately, more comfortably, etc.?’). URs are interested in users’ needs in the context of their whole experience, their environment and its contents. I don’t know why but somewhere along the way in the last couple of years, the word ‘experience’ got dropped from the UR’s job title, and at the same time the focus on ‘users’ needs’ rose to the top of their remit list.
I’d like to put the ‘experience’ back into the User Researcher. Because otherwise and if we’re not careful, UR will become defined purely by its methods. You can see that in the job ads many of which foreground essential experience as including the use of this or that method, tool set or other bit of clever dick kit. These are tools. Nothing more. The desire and ability to investigate human lived experience, to understand it and to be able to meaningfully invite others to share that understanding in compelling ways, is what defines the UR.
So there’s the soapbox pitch. And then someone asks me: “so what do you mean by experience?’ You could reach into works in Social Psychology (Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Kenneth Gergen, 2009) Ethnomethodology (Harold Garfinkel, 2002) and Phenomenology (Alfred Schutz, 1967), as well as Anthropology (William Starbuck, 2002). Throw in some choice studies in Cognitive Psychology (Lewicki et al, 1997) and Neuropsychology (David Eagleman, 2020) and bingo you have an amazing answer. Except that it’s unlikely to go down well. But at least listeners know you’re well-read if nothing more.
Searching around for a really effective way of explaining and illustrating what is exactly meant by ‘experience’ as the focus of UR’s interest, I could not think of a better and more simple, straightforward response than this:
UX Design is a bit like designing the perfect glove for a person’s hand. The User Experience Researcher’s job is to find out all about the user (the future wearers of the gloves) such that the perfect glove can be designed and crafted not just for the user’s physical hand, but for the user’s environment in which they will wear it, and context in which they will do things.
So UXR is interested in the user’s experiences of wearing gloves, using them to do what, in which conditions, and how that makes them feel. UXR wants to understand (‘understand’ not necessarily just outright ask them) the user’s lifestyle by their choices, their colour preferences and favourite materials.
So, it’s not just the perfect glove, it’s the perfect glove experience that we want to uncover. To do that, we mostly observe the current action and ask questions / prompt conversations. We test out ideas and concepts and observe closely how the user experiences those.
Here’s an example: I was involved in a project a while back that wanted to capture user needs for a portable device to replace sticky notes, notebooks and scraps of paper. The solution was already on the drawing board — a portable digital device, pocket-sized, robust, easy to use in sometimes extreme conditions (hot, cold, dirty etc.). Great. Remote Disco interviews provided much rich insight and lots of colourful charts. What they didn’t do was give insight into the lived experience of the users themselves other than as reported hearsay. So no one thought to include in the proposed solution a new glove design that would replace the existing thick and rigid gloves that all users wore much of the time. The protective gloves just about allowed the wearer to hold a pencil and write: the user would need to remove their gloves every time they wanted to access their device. And that might be unsafe.
Experience means whole experience. Can we put ‘Experience’ back into User Research please?
Eagleman, D. (2021). Livewired: the inside story of the every-changing brain. London: Canongate Books
Garfinkel, H. (2002). Ethnomethodology’s Program: working out Durkeim’s Aphorism. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield
Gergen, K (2009). Relational Being: beyond self and community. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Lewicki, P., Czyzewska, M. and Hill, T. (1997). Cognitive Mechanisms for Acquiring “Experience”: the dissociation between conscious and nonconscious cognition. In Cohen, J. and Schooler, J. (Eds). Scientific Approaches to Consciousness. London: Psychology Press
Potter, J. and Wetherell, M. (1987). Discourse and Social Psychology: beyond attitudes and behaviour. London: Sage
Schutz, A. (1967). The Phenomenology of the Social World. (2nd Edn). Illinois: Northwestern University Press
Starbuck, W. (2002). Keeping a butterfly and an elephant in a house of cards. In Choo and Bontis, Eds. The Strategic Management of Intellectual Capital and Organizational Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press
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