User experience without the user is not user experience

Authors: Ashley Karr
Posted: Mon, November 24, 2014 - 10:09:43

Take away: User experience (UX) is a method of engineering and design that creates systems to work best for the intended user. In order to design in this way, users must be included in the design process through user research and usability testing. If user research and usability testing are not practiced, then UX is not being practiced.

What is the problem?

I have seen and interacted with countless individuals and organizations claiming that they practice UX, but in reality, they practice what I call personal experience design, stakeholder experience design, or client experience design. In this type of design, there may be a department called UX within an organization, there may be a few individuals with UX in their job descriptions, or there may be a consultant or agency that sells UX services to clients. However, these departments, agencies, and individuals never work directly with representative users. Simply put, what these people and groups are practicing is not user experience because they are not including the user in their design process. 

Why do we exclude the user from user experience?

Excuses for not working with users include: lacking the time and money to conduct research, not knowing that working with users is part of the UX process, not believing working with non-designers or engineers would positively impact a design, actually being afraid of recruiting and working with users, and not knowing how to conduct research and testing. My hope is that the frequency of these excuses will drop considerably over the next few years as more people become aware of how valuable user research and usability testing methods are and how fast, easy, and enjoyable user research and usability testing can be. 

User research and usability testing can speed up the design process for a number of reasons. The most important of which, in my opinion, is that the data gathered from research and testing is very difficult to argue with. This data aligns teams and stakeholders and cuts back on time spent agonizing and arguing over design decisions. If two departments or two team members can’t agree on a design element, for example, they can test it and let the users choose. Setting up and running a test is often times faster and more productive than arguing or philosophizing about the design with teams, clients, and/or stakeholders.

Why is it important to work with users?

Working with users allows us to understand users’ mental models regarding a design. This, in turn, allows us to design an interface that matches users’ mental models rather than the interface matching the engineers’, designers’, or organizations’ implementation models. It should make sense to design something that the user will understand. The way to understand what makes sense to the user is to talk to, listen to, and observe them. Although making sure that users understand how to use your design does not guarantee success, it does increase your chances. I also want to mention before closing this paragraph that by working with users in this way, we often gain deep insights that spur innovation for our current and future designs. Needs we may never have spotted expose themselves and point us toward a new and important function or a completely novel product.

What are user research and usability testing?

User research is a process that allows researchers to understand how a design impacts users. Researchers learn about user knowledge, skills, attitudes, beliefs, motivations, behaviors, and needs through particular methods such as contextual inquiry, interviewing, and task analysis. Usability testing is a method that allows a system or interface to be evaluated by testing it on users. The value of usability tests is that they show how users actually interact with a system—and what people say they do is often times quite different than what they actually do. Note that the biggest difference between user research and usability testing is this: A usability test requires a prototype and user research does not necessarily require a prototype.

How can you begin practicing user research and usability testing now?

Depending on your situation, you may be able to begin practicing user research and user interviewing informally right now by simply asking people around you for feedback regarding your design. For most of us, this is very feasible and we do not need permission from anyone to get started. If your representative users are quite different than the people around you, you are working on a project that is protected by non-disclosure agreements, or you are working within a large organization with an internal review board, you will have a few more hoops to jump through before being able to begin using these techniques. You will just have to work a little harder to recruit representative users, require research participants to also sign NDAs, and/or receive approval from the internal review board before you can start. 

Let’s set the hoops aside now and accept that getting out and away from your own head, assumptions, desk, office, and devices in order to talk to and observe users in their native habitats is one of the most powerful design techniques that exists. Being afraid or uninformed can no longer be excuses. Once you have conducted a user interview or a round of usability testing, the fear subsides, and there are so many amazing and free resources available online to guide practitioners through research and testing. I recommend and a hearty Google search to get the information you need to begin incorporating user research and usability testing into your process. And, that is the point of this article—to get you to begin.

Posted in: on Mon, November 24, 2014 - 10:09:43

Ashley Karr

Ashley is a UX instructor with GA and runs a UX consulting firm,
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