The waves of research practice. Research rides three waves of… | by Dave Hora

The User Experience movement started with the idea that we could make better, more humane software, and even more human organizations, combining intentional Design with the human-centered research methods of Usability and HCI. Jesse James Garrett’s Elements of User Experience diagram (2000) led to the book in 2003, and offered a new framework for understanding what User Experience was working with. Alan Cooper’s The Inmates are Running the Asylum (1999) laid out the foundational problem — for all our theory, we were still producing bad software — and offered an answer, a means to model and encapsulate user needs and develop for them.

Building models of users (Beyer & Holtzblatt’s models of user work and flow, Cooper’s models of user goals and behavior) to drive design was not new. Henry Dreyfuss wrote about a human-centered process for industrial design in Designing for People (1955), and published the corresponding human factors user-models in the Measure of Man (1966), later updated to The Measure of Man and Woman. I believe how we use models as visual, shared, and tangible places of learning and assumption is a core research competency that remains largely unexplored in Product Wave research work.

Human factors models, from Dreyfuss, The Measure of Man (1960, rev. ed. 1967)

What Cooper began in Inmates, he carried forward to About Face (1995, with Robert Reimann and David Cronin), in the larger frame of interaction design. Interaction was a “higher order” (cf. Buchanan) of design than industrial design. It required new types of user-models (behavioral) to design new kinds of things (activities). Dreyfuss’ human-scale ergonomic data will help us design a bus, or a train car — for example, it matters how tall and wide people are so we can accommodate them — but that’s not the kind of information that will help us design software. To understand people in new ways, we would need new and updated forms of research. Research practice would co-evolve with the activities supporting interaction design, and ‘user research’ was gaining traction as its label.

Mike Kuniavsky laid the cards on the table in 2003, with Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research, a comprehensive survey of research methods as they pertained to interaction design. Kim Goodwin built on Cooper’s work and published an end-to-end approach to iterative interaction design, rooted in research and the development of behavioral user models, personas and scenarios, in her Designing for the Digital Age (2009).

And in 2013, the professional mindset and activities that constitute user research gained further clarity and more accessible grounding perspectives in Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research (2013) and Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users (2013). Through the mid 2010s, these last three would become primary sources for my work of building out research in organizations who had never seen a researcher before.

At the same time that user research was consolidating out of UX and interaction design, product managers were developing their own theories and practices of users and experience. Early twenty-teens product zeitgeist was “getting out of the building.” Rigor didn’t matter so much as contact and baseline exposure to context. We needed customers and we needed insights.

My Director of Product Management handed me Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany (2005) in 2011 as the bible for customer work — customer discovery, customer validation, customer creation, customer building. It was a process for operating a product business from a customer-oriented view, with a strong search-and-iterate startup perspective. (Later I’d come to find that our organization was incapable of operating in this manner.) And it offered a business lens, the ability to zoom out to a higher product-oriented perspective; the target wasn’t designing interactions and ensuring good experiences, it was also making sure the product and the customers fit.

We gained more structured means of ‘talking to customers’ from business and innovation thinking. Tony Ulwick’s Outcome-Driven Innovation was popularized as Jobs to be Done, in Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Solution : Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth (2005) The answer to the dilemma focused on customers in context and looked to encapsulate the outcomes and progress they wanted to make. (It was this thinking that also gave us Theodore Levitt’s ubiquitous, insightful, useful, and awful quote, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”)

“Lean” and “continuous” ideas built on these frames, accelerating the pace of customer-oriented product development well beyond the pace of design-based research. And the more important and foundational a study seemed, the longer it would take, only increasing its disconnect from the product development cycle, while the dogma of universally-applied agile supplies a constant source of fuel.

Teresa Torres’ product work, formalized in Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products that Create Customer Value and Business Value (2021), takes the pragmatic approach of creating research practice from the ground up, inside of existing product cycles. The dutiful researcher, trained up in late Wave 1 or early Wave 2, will object to a lack of structure and formal process. But if formal research projects don’t fit the work, talking to any customers (with basic interviewing skills, and an eye for problem-/solution- space distinction) proves infinitely more valuable than talking with none of them.

The work of research in the Product Wave is unbundling our practice from projects, and evolving the work to drive new value within the continuous stream of product work. What does research provide that product teams (with good-enough interviewing skills and existing discovery practices) aren’t realizing, or can’t achieve, on their own? That’s the game, for the next few years.

And the pieces are coming into place. The activities required to execute our work are consolidating into known forms that will serve as building blocks for the evolution of Product Wave research. We see maturing interview capability, well-understood and structured formats for user insight, design and product theories oriented on a user/customer perspective, collaborative tools for building shared understanding, and ever-shrinking loops of execution and learning. It’s an exciting and turbulent time in Product Wave research.

Wave 2 Research — The Product Wave

Even as our practice grows and evolves, there is a wall this wave won’t breach. Research in the Product Wave does not have the scope or the tools to address higher-order organizational strategy about which spaces we’re playing in. It’s rare that organizations themselves have this higher-order conceptual view, the why of “should we move here instead of there” before approaching the work itself.

Lack of strategic sight will destroy a product effort or a research direction with a quick whip of executive will, or the shackles of board-enforced priorities. Without a clear rationale for making our moves, it’s hard to learn from them, and harder yet to hold a high bar for the decisions that change them.

Researchers (and designers, and product managers, and engineers, and marketers, and executives) with enough stored pain from failed and curtailed product efforts, plus the fortitude to focus and learn from them, are eventually drawn up to the next wave.

The Strategy Wave is one of gameplay. Strategy Wave research emerges from Product Wave research, and pulls in the wider scope of business, market landscape, organizational structure, and planning. The full scope of the work and its possibilities are unclear-it’s all being explored and custom built at this stage.

The research work will require the same kind of structured modeling for shared understanding and learning that we employ with user needs in the Product Wave, but operate on a higher context at longer time scales. What’s modeled are those needs, the value chains that support them, and the larger market landscape they sit within. The focus is on strategic gameplay, and that gameplay will push organizations to plan and operate strategy cycles in new ways.

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