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Posts from the ‘Advice’ Category

Are Consent Forms Always Necessary?

Are consent forms always necessary? We’re told that consent forms are an indispensable part of ethical user research. Consent forms are the vehicle to give and get informed consent – they inform the participants of what the study will entail and they allow the participant to indicate consent – with a signature and date.A consent form

Yet consent forms can conflict with the informal, friendly rapport that we try to establish with participants. Anything you present for people to sign immediately looks like a legal document or liability waiver. It puts them on guard.

That’s ironic because consent forms are the opposite of legal waivers. Legal documents are created to protect the interests of the company that creates them, while consent forms are created to protect the rights of the people signing them. Yet most participants assume they are signing a typical legal waiver.

Consent forms seem acceptable in more formal user research situations, such as usability testing and focus groups, but they seem odd and even off-putting when used in more informal situations. I’ve found them to be especially awkward when doing field studies at people’s offices. You strive to set up an informal situation, such as asking someone to show you how they create reports or asking them to try out a new design for an expense report application. But when you show up with a consent form for them to sign, it shatters the informal, comfortable rapport you tried so hard to establish. I’ve had people react to consent forms in this kind of situation with, “Hey! I thought we were just talking here.” How many times in the course of your work-life have you had someone show up to a meeting with a legal document for you to sign?

So I say use your judgment. When a consent form feels like it would be overly formal, don’t use it (unless your legal department requires it). Instead, get informed consent informally by email. “Inform” with your email describing what will take place, and get “consent” from their reply email agreeing to participate. At the start of the session, you can inform them again with a summary of what you’ll be doing. They will then give consent by continuing to participate in the session.

A good guideline is how comfortable or uncomfortable you feel when giving participants the consent form. If you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably breaking a group norm. So you should find a more acceptable way of getting informed consent.

User Experience to be Thankful For

The First Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis...

The First Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This Thanksgiving, before you carve the turkey, you may take a moment to think about the things you’re thankful for. But what about the things you’re thankful for in your work? After all, work takes up a large part of your life. If you’re a user experience geek like me, you may want to think about all the things that you’re thankful for in user experience. So let’s count our UX blessings:

The user experience of most products, websites, and applications is better than ever.

People are having a better experience than ever with most products, websites, and applications. Things are far from perfect, but we’ve made a big difference in improving the overall user experience over the last 20 years.

UX professionals are needed more than ever.

Although the overall user experience has definitely improved, it hasn’t improved enough that we’re not needed. There will always be a need for someone to focus on user research and designing the user experience. As we move from software and websites to mobile devices, wearable computing, and ubiquitous computing, there are many interesting challenges ahead.

We don’t have to do as much educating and selling UX as we used to.

More people than ever have a general idea of what user experience is and believe in its importance. They may not be able to define user experience, but they are primed to understand what it means with a little explanation. More people than ever know what usability (or at least “ease of us”) is. Even if they don’t know it by the term “user experience,” they can already sense it and value it. It’s easier to explain to people and we are less often challenged to prove its value.

There are more user experience jobs than ever before.

I don’t know this for sure, but it does seem like there are more user experience jobs than ever before, and it seems like that will only increase. There’s room in this field for generalists and specialists.

User experience is a very inclusive field.

User experience is still a very multidisciplined field. We welcome many different specialties and perspectives.

We don’t fight as much as we used to.

Compared to a few years ago, there doesn’t seem to be as much fighting about job titles, definitions, and which field or organization really represents the user experience.

User experience professionals are more connected than ever before.

We have more opportunities to connect with other UX professionals, either in-person or virtually, than ever before. The list of conferences and local events seems to continue to grow with more networking opportunities than ever before. With Twitter and LinkedIn, we can communicate and connect with people that we would never have met or heard from just five years ago.

There are more UX resources to learn from than ever before.

If you want to keep up to date and continue learning, there are more opportunities than ever before. There is a lot of great UX-related content out there, from web magazines, blogs, publications from UX organizations and conferences, and books. UX books have become shorter, more specialized, and aimed at experienced professionals.

We’ve never had better tools.

We’ve never had better tools for user research, prototyping, and design. Tools for remote usability testing, unmoderated testing, card sorting, tree testing, and eyetracking have expanded the type of research we can do. Prototyping and design tools make it easier than ever to create prototypes that we can evaluate with clients and test with users.

We do good work. We are part of a noble calling.

We’re lucky to be in a line of work where we solve interesting problems and help make people’s lives a little better. It may sound corny, but our work is a noble calling. We create better experiences for people. That may be as minor in the grand scheme of things as creating an easy, pleasant online shopping experience; or it may be as serious as preventing major safety errors that could endanger lives. Most of the time it’s somewhere in between, but it’s nice to know that to some degree we’re making the world a better place.

What it’s like to receive user research findings

As a user researcher, I often deliver bad news to clients – a long list of problems with their application or product and an intimidating list of recommended changes. It’s easy for me to think that the client should immediately set about making all these recommended changes. And when some of those changes aren’t made, I shake my head and can’t understand why they just don’t get it.

It’s not often that I’ve put myself in the client’s shoes to think about what they’re going through when they get the news. I’ve never been in the position of being the owner of an application or product who has to listen to a long list of problems that need to be fixed. So how can I empathize with what the client goes through?

I am, however, a homeowner who bought an older house after getting a home inspector to inspect the house. His inspection gave us a long list of problems to fix. It was intimidating and depressing to see how much work would be needed even after the high cost of buying the house.

What prevented us from giving up on the house, was that he prioritized the list of problems to show which items were critical to fix before purchasing the house, what would need to be done within the next year, which things could wait a few years, and what were optional but recommended fixes. That made his recommended changes seem more doable. We knew what fixes it would be reasonable to ask the seller to make, which items to focus on first after buying the house, and what we could wait on.

With user research findings and recommendations, it’s important to give your audience a sense of the severity of the problems and the priority of what should be addressed first. Like a home buyer, few clients have the time and money to fix all the problems right away. Receiving a large list of problems and recommended fixes can lead to a defeated feeling and a desire to ignore the problem or just give up. Instead, give them a sense that the problems are manageable and that it’s possible to focus on fixing a few items first and then gradually address additional problems over time.

Amateur Job Interviewers

Flickr: joelogon

Because asking questions is one of the main things I do as a user researcher, it often amazes me that I’m not better at interviewing job candidates. But a job interview is very different from a user interview. In a job interview, you’re trying to assess the qualifications and suitability of a person who’s actively trying to impress you and may not be telling you the full truth. You’re constantly making judgments. That’s completely different than a user interview, in which you try to remain impartial and neither you nor the interviewee has a vested interest in the outcome, besides trying to understand the person and the tasks he or she performs.

I’m an amateur job interviewer. Expert interviewers, such as the hiring manager and the recruiter or HR person, have the most at stake in interviewing the candidates. Amateur interviewers are usually potential co-workers who are there to assess the qualifications of the candidate and how well the person would fit in with the company.

Most interviewing advice focuses on how to interview with experts, but they don’t give you much insight into the minds of the amateurs. Here are a few things to know about amateur job interviewers.

They’re busy and your interview may be a hassle

Amateur interviewers are often busy. They get a meeting invitation to do a job interview and they accept it without thinking. They may then forget about the interview until a few minutes beforehand. So it’s likely that your interview is an interruption in their workday, which may affect their mood. They may just want to get the interview over with.

You may interview with someone who has been called in at the last minute

Since people are busy, last minute cancellations are common. Project work usually takes precedence over job interviews. So the person you were scheduled to meet with may change to someone else at the last minute. That person who was called in at the last minute is probably even less prepared to interview with you.

They may not have read your resume

Amateur interviewers may take a quick look at your resume when they first get the meeting invitation, but they have probably forgotten the details by the time of the interview. Often, they simply glance over the resume just before or during the beginning of the interview. “Tell me a little about yourself,” is often the first question because they haven’t read your resume.

They don’t necessarily know how to evaluate you

Amateur interviewers often have no interview training. They’ve been on job interviews themselves, but they don’t always know what questions to ask or how to evaluate the responses. Other than trusting your gut opinion, it’s often very difficult to judge someone from just a 30 minute interview.

It’s safer not to make a decision

Since it’s difficult to judge people, it’s often safer to either reject a candidate or recommend additional interviews. Sure, there are clear times when you feel that someone would be a great fit for the job and times when you definitely feel that a candidate should be rejected. But very often, the decision isn’t that clear. In those cases, it may seem safer to turn a candidate down or recommend additional interviews.

They may not want to hire someone

Unlike the HR person or the hiring manager, amateur interviewers may not want to hire another person. They may see an additional employee as a threat. If you appear to be too good, they may feel threatened by you – that you will surpass them or compete for promotions and attention. The interviewer may not see the need for additional employees. You may be seen as someone who will take away their work.

They don’t know the big picture

HR people and hiring managers know about all the candidates that have applied. They’ve likely read the resumes and picked out the best people to interview. They know about the level of talent that their job posting has been attracting and can judge between the possible candidates for the job. Amateur interviewers rarely have all this information. So it’s difficult for them to judge the one or two people they’ve interviewed, because they can’t compare them to the other options.

They won’t take much time to look at samples

Work samples are helpful, but busy people have very little time to look at work samples outside of the interview itself. This is especially true for writing samples, which take more time to read and evaluate.

They may be uncomfortable asking difficult questions

Amateurs are often not comfortable asking tough questions. That may sound like a good thing, but just because a question isn’t asked, doesn’t mean that the question isn’t in the interviewer’s head. Often the biggest doubts about hiring someone seem impolite to ask, which doesn’t give the candidate the ability to address those issues.  For example, “You have no experience in this field, so how do you think you can succeed in this job?” is a great but difficult question to ask. If it’s not addressed, that doubt will still linger in the interviewer’s mind and may be the reason to recommend not hiring you.

How to make the most of an amateur interview

By knowing what an amateur interviewer is thinking, there are a few things you can do to make the most of one of these interviews:

  • Bring extra copies of your resume to hand out to interviewers who don’t have one.
  • Ask them for their name and what they do, since the person you interview with may not be the original person scheduled for the session.
  • Prepare a good summary about yourself when asked, “So, tell me about yourself.”
  • Present your best self, but don’t be too good. You don’t want the interviewer to feel that you’re a threat to their job. You want them to picture you as a friendly co-worker, not a ruthless competitor.
  • Ask the interviewer questions about him/herself, the job, and the company. Most people feel much more comfortable answering questions about themselves and the company rather than asking questions. Amateur interviewers are often the best sources of information about the job, the people who work there, and what it would be like to work for the company.
  • Even if you’ve already asked all your questions of previous interviewers, ask the same questions again with the person you’re currently interviewing with. You don’t seem prepared if you don’t have any questions to ask.
  • Conduct your own assessment of the amateur interviewer. Would you want to work with that person?
  • Bring work samples to show during the meeting. It gives you something to talk about, taking the burden off the interviewer. Also, it’s probably the only time the interviewer will have to look at them.
  • Make sure you address the important points about why you would be a good fit for the position, and proactively answer any possible doubts. The interviewer may be relieved that he or she doesn’t have to ask these uncomfortable questions, and you may relieve their doubts. It also shows that you have good judgment and gives the impression that you’re honest and realistic.
  • Thank them for taking the time out of their busy schedule to interview you.
  • Send a brief and informal thank you email after the interview.

And lastly, remember that once you get the job, someday you’ll end up as an amateur interviewer too. So remember what the situation was like on the other side of the interview table.

Too Cool for Your Usability Test

CoolNo matter how well you recruit representative participants for a usability test and no matter how well you plan the testing, there are times when you’ll ask participants to perform a task that they might not normally perform themselves. It’s rare that every task you ask people to perform matches exactly what they would do. When this happens, most participants are agreeable enough to just “play along” for the purposes of the test.

Sure, it’s good to know what a participant would normally do instead of your planned task, but that’s more useful to learn during field studies. During a usability test, you usually just want to observe how well people can perform tasks.

During a recent usability test of an intranet design, I asked participants to browse the Blogs section to test out the usability of the filtering and searching functions common across the various sections of the intranet. I used the Blogs section as an example because that was the section we had built out in our prototype. Unfortunately, I came across two participants who were “too cool” to read blogs. In fact, they were too cool to even play along with my ridiculous and demeaning scenario.

It went something like this:

Me: Show me where you’d go if you wanted to see all the blogs in the company.

Joe Cool: Oh, I wouldn’t do that.

Me: Why?

Joe Cool: I don’t read the blogs.

Me: Why is that?

Joe Cool: Who cares about blogs? I don’t have time to read blogs.

Me: Okay, but if you did want to see all the blogs, where would you find them?

Joe Cool: I really wouldn’t do that. People here don’t really pay attention to the blogs. Who has time for that? We have enough to do with…

[Two minutes later]

Me: Okay, well that’s good to know, but just for the sake of this session, let’s say that you did want to read the blogs, where would you go to do that?

Joe Cool: [Sigh] Well, I guess I’d go here, and – here it is. But you see the problem with blogs is that…

[One minute rant later]

Me: Okay, what would you do if you wanted this to show you the most popular blog posts in the company?

Joe Cool: I don’t really care about what other people think is popular, especially from people who read blogs.

Me: Okay, but if someone else wanted to see the most popular blog posts in the company, what should they do here?

Joe Cool: Maybe they should ask someone else who reads blogs a lot? Or they should get a life and do something more productive.

Me: Okay, let’s move on to the next part…

Luckily, the next task was cool enough for him. Sometimes that’s all you can hope for.

How Many Brains is Your User Research In?

Brain

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sure, it saves time to skip official research deliverables and just apply the research knowledge you’ve learned directly to the design, but it’s shortsighted. Unlike design, which leaves behind a tangible artifact that you can see, feel, and use; user research consists of abstract knowledge locked in the brain of the researcher until it’s presented effectively in a deliverable. If that knowledge isn’t officially captured and presented understandably to others, it tends to get lost over time.

That became clear to me recently when I was asked to take over a project for a Researcher who was leaving our company. Because of a very short timeframe, there was no official deliverable from her contextual inquiries, only informal notes. She was asked to give me a “knowledge transfer,” and provide me with her high-level notes. Needless to say, the knowledge transfer didn’t go very well, and she left the company taking her brain with her, including all the research it contained.

A similar mistake occurs when multiple researchers work on a project, dividing up the sessions between themselves. To project managers and clients, that can sound like a great idea. Two researchers can either get the research done in half the time, or they can double the number of participants in the same time frame. The problem is that instead of building up knowledge through repetition, each researcher only has the knowledge of half of the sessions. To analyze the results, they have to then somehow combine what they observed.

So until they invent a direct brain-to-brain transfer device: attend every session, don’t split up sessions between multiple researchers, and produce effective and comprehensive deliverables to document your findings for future generations.

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