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What Personal Qualities Do You Need As a User Researcher?

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Have you ever wondered what qualities you need to succeed in user research? I just published an article on UXmatters, Qualities of Effective User Researchers, which lists the following qualities that lead to a successful career in user research:

  • Curiosity
  • Idealism
  • Pragmatism
  • Persuasiveness
  • Open-Mindedness
  • Ability to Learn Quickly
  • Organizational Skills and Attention to Detail
  • Time Management Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Empathy
  • Friendliness
  • Neutrality
  • Perceptiveness
  • Patience
  • Mental Agility
  • Flexibility and Adaptability
  • Good Memory
  • Effective Notetaking
  • Analytical Skills
  • Problem Solving
  • Design Skills
  • Writing Skills
  • Communication Skills

This may sound like an intimidating list, but you don’t have to be perfect in all of these areas. Check out the full article on UXmatters – Qualities of Effective User Researchers.

Cow image by FFCU (Free for Commercial Use) by Creative Commons License

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Questions People Have a Hard Time Answering

Question marks

Over the years, I’ve made my share of mistakes and learned about the types of questions and topics that participants have a hard time answering accurately in user research. Most people do try to answer your questions, but they may not be able to easily and accurately answer these types of questions:

  • Remembering details about the past
  • Predicting what they might do in the future
  • Accurately answering a hypothetical question
  • Discussing the details of their tasks out of context
  • Telling you what they really need
  • Imagining how something might work
  • Envisioning an improved design
  • Distinguishing between minuscule design differences
  • Explaining the reasons for their behavior

I discuss these types of difficult questions, and better ways to get that information from participants, in my latest article on UXmatters:
Avoiding Hard-to-Answer Questions in User Interviews.

Image credit: Véronique Debord-Lazaro on Flickr

Testing Your Own Designs

Usability testing session

Today I published an article in UXmatters, Testing Your Own Designs. It’s often been said that you shouldn’t conduct usability testing on your own designs, because you may be too biased, defensive, or too close to the design to be an impartial facilitator. Although that may be the ideal, often UX designers don’t have a choice. They may be the only person available to test the design, so if they don’t test it, no one will. So in this article I provide advice for those times when you have to test your own design, and I also provide advice for when someone else tests your design.

I was hesitant to write this article, because it’s been a topic that many others have written about, but I felt that as someone who has been on all sides of the issue, I had something additional to add. Here are some other good articles about this topic:

Testing Your Own Designs: Bad Idea? and Testing Your Own Designs Redux by Paul Sherman

Should Designers and Developers Do Usability? by Jakob Nielsen

BECAUSE NOBODY’S BABY IS UGLY … SHOULD DESIGNERS TEST THEIR OWN STUFF? by Cathy Carr at Bunnyfoot

The Most Difficult User Research Method

User research participant at desk

What do these three things have in common – playing in a one-man band, juggling chainsaws, and babysitting 10 three-year-olds? When you try to do all of these things at the same time, it’s only slightly more difficult than conducting field studies.

Of course, I’m just kidding, but not by much. In my opinion, field studies are the most difficult user research technique for three reasons: unpredictability, the need to learn about unfamiliar domains, and the need to deal with competing demands. There’s not much you can do about unpredictability or the need to learn a new domain, but there are things that you can do to better handle the competing demands of field studies.

In my latest article on UXmatters, I discuss these competing demands and how to best handle them:

  • Observing and listening
  • Understanding
  • Determining whether and when to ask questions
  • Formulating questions
  • Assessing answers
  • Managing the session
  • Assessing the session
  • Keeping track of the time
  • Managing observers
  • Capturing the session
  • Maintaining a good rapport with the participant

Read more in my latest article, Handling the Competing Demands of Field Studies.

Image credit: Highways England on Flickr

Suspicious Minds

office scene

In previous research projects, there have been several times when participants were suspicious of our motives. This tends to happen when you’re doing research with a group of employees, trying to understand their work processes. These are the times that you’re trying to observe what they do in their jobs more than studying an existing system.

When there’s a direct connection to an application that they use, people tend to feel less suspicious. They can see that you’re trying to understand how well the application works and where it can be improved. This especially happens when it’s in a company that’s had poor previous experiences with reorganizations, layoffs, and offshoring. People tend to see us as another group of consultants coming in to study how they do their work to see what can be improved or who can be eliminated.

So how do you reassure people in these difficult situations about your true purpose? I wrote a recent article about this at UXmatters – Winning Over Wary Participants. Check it out, and if you have additional tips to make people feel more comfortable in these situations, feel free to leave a comment.

 

Image: Jake Sutton

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.