An insightful review of ‘Think Like a UX Researcher’

User Experience & Usability

Huh? You’re already a UX researcher…

The book ‘Think Like a UX Researcher’ on a desk

No matter what your profession, age and experience there is always time to develop and improve. Since the new year, I finally spent some time reading ‘Think Like a UX Researcher: How to Observe Users, Influence Design, and Shape Business Strategy’ by David Travis & Philip Hodgson, and I have to say, I’m a fan! Despite the grayscale print, there was a good variety of topics that kept me engaged and got me thinking about my role as a researcher.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the book is split into six chapters that each contain multiple shorter topics; the idea being that you can dip in and out at your convenience. I’m not going to write a critical review of the book, but instead I’ve picked out my favourite point from each chapter to provide some insight. Each of these points either taught me something new, helped to ingrain what I already knew or encouraged me to address some of my weaknesses.

Chapter 1: Setting the Stage

“A user interview is like going to the zoo whereas field research is like going on safari.”

Two wild lions lying in the grass

This quote was my favourite analogy used in the book – partly because I like animals, but also because it draws a bold line between lab-based and contextual research.

The discussion explains that the main limitation of lab-based research is the fact that the user’s natural behaviour is missing. Why? Because the environment is missing; there’s no need for the lion to hunt for its prey at the zoo, so instead it will spend more time doing other tasks like sleeping or pacing, with no obvious end goal. Contextual research, however, is free of constraints and allows for the observation of natural actions, with real pressures and dangers – in the lion’s case, these could be heat exhaustion and hunger.

The chapter goes on to identify four questions, from zoologist Niko Tinberg, that can act as a framework for unpacking observed behaviours or interactions. The book uses the great example of stopping a vehicle at a red traffic light to answer each question, as summarised below.

1. What is the behaviour for? 
To avoid an accident or the consequences of breaking the law.
2. How does the behaviour work?
Our brain processes the visual input from the light and triggers the learnt response of stopping (i.e. putting our foot on the brake pedal).
3. How did the behaviour develop?
We learnt the rule by observing other road users, and via our driving instructors or other sources whilst learning to drive.
4. How did the behaviour evolve?
Red lights have become a universal sign for controlling traffic at road junctions. They were first used in 1868 in London.

 

I can’t wait to put these into practice when writing my next session guide, and now also have a great analogy for selling contextual research too!

Chapter 2: Planning User Experience Research

“You should actively bias your sample toward people with lower digital skills and lower domain knowledge.”

Anyone working in UX research will know that Jakob Nielsen has promoted five as the magic number of users required to identify 85% of usability issues. This supports the approach of conducting short rounds of iterative testing as the design evolves. Although this book agrees that this is in keeping with an agile approach, it provided a welcome reminder that the chance of finding usability problems isn’t quite so simple!

The success figure of 85% is based on the assumption that each usability issue will affect approximately one-third (31%) of users, meaning that you have a one in three chance of it being identified during the testing. However, some parts of the interface may affect a smaller proportion of users, meaning that this figure is in fact lower. The book suggests that to get the most out of a small sample, you should therefore bias it towards users who are more likely to identify these issues, such as those with digital skills below average for the target user group.

Whilst I think that this is an interesting idea, I’m still trying to figure out whether I agree. Firstly, I am worried that biasing to this extreme will mean that I miss other issues; what about expert users who have more established mental models of the digital world? There are also other individual differences unrelated to skill levels that should be considered, such as users with accessibility needs. I’d love to know what you think!

Chapter 3: Conducting User Experience Research

“There is a misconception that if the participant isn’t speaking, then you’re not learning anything.”

Clients often want to pack as much as possible into usability testing sessions, including asking questions when the participant is in the middle of the task. ‘Think Like a UX Researcher’ reinforced the danger of usability testing sessions becoming interviews or sitting somewhere between the two, and highlighted ways for the researcher to manage the level of talking during usability testing.

  1. While the participant is completing a task, the researcher should adjust their body language to that of an observer, by sitting to the side and slightly behind the participant, whilst avoiding any eye contact, which may trigger a conversation.
  2. Don’t be afraid of silence! The researcher should give the participant time to read, process and make judgements during the task; without expecting them to think aloud continuously. By forcing themselves to use the same phrase to prompt the participant, researchers will feel stupid repeating it too many times, accepting the need for some quiet.
  3. As a researcher, be up-front with the client about your expertise, and ensure that the usability testing is the core focus of the session. Make it clear that anything that does not come out of the observation will be covered in a follow-up interview.

I think this is something that most researchers probably need to work on, and clients can hopefully take notice too. I’ve made a note to look back over some recent session recordings as a reflection activity (highlighted in the final part of the book).

Chapter 4: Analyzing User Experience Research

“It’s the process of UX research that matters, not the beauty of the final artefact.”

The section on ‘Agile Personas’ resonated with me whilst reading ‘Think Like a UX Researcher’ as I agree that the value of personas can sometimes be a sticking point with clients. Having studied design, I am a sucker for making things look appealing, but it was refreshing to be reminded that this isn’t always necessary or helpful. In the case of personas, beautifully designed persona profiles give the impression that they cannot be changed as more is learnt about users, and can also suggest that they lack depth.

There is, however, value in creating quick, basic personas using research findings. To demonstrate this, the book introduced me to the 2½D Sketch by David Marr, which captures the idea that our visual system fills in any gaps to construct objects, based on reasonable assumptions. For example, if you see someone with their back turned to you, you are able to predict what they will look like from the front – you would be surprised if they turned around and had no facial features. It explains how intentionally creating a persona that appears unfinished, acts as a reminder that you can never know everything about your users, and that personas are approximate, live, working documents. To do this, you can simply split a page into four quadrants showing:

  • a sketch of the user type in context
  • proven facts about the user type
  • user behaviours related to the product
  • user needs and goals related to the product

The book also reminded me that you should complete persona generation as a team, and prioritise the points in each quadrant, in order to reach a shared understanding of different user types.

Chapter 5: Persuading People to Take Action on the Results of User Experience Research

“There is more than one way to skin an interface.”

One of my favourite tools in ‘Think Like a UX Researcher’ is SCAMPER; designed to help generate solutions following user research. This is something that I hope to use in a future debrief with clients, to spark ideas about how they might act on the research recommendations.

Substitute something
Combine it with something else
Adapt something to it
Modify, magnify or minify it
Put it to some other use
Eliminate something
Reverse or rearrange it
Fig 1: Overview of the SCAMPER framework

SCAMPER is a creative framework that can be used to help generate ideas to a problem, by approaching it from several different angles, as shown in Figure 1. The book makes a valid point that you should not only use this when struggling to find a solution to a usability problem, but also when you think you’ve found one, as it may not always be the best. I’ve tried using it to generate five potential design solutions following an example problem (with a bit more context) from the book.

Graphic of a website showing the problem of a hidden homepage control
A visualisation of the problem

Problem: The homepage control on a website is hidden beneath a ‘More options’ tab.

Graphic of a website showing solutions based on the SCAMPER framework
A visualisation of possible solutions

Solutions:

S – The ‘More options’ tab could be substituted with a toolbar with a series of icon buttons indicating the functionality of each control. For example, a button with a house icon for the homepage control.

C – The interface could combine a link to the homepage with the existing brand logo. This is a common solution and would therefore likely match the mental model of website users. It would also optimise space in the interface.

A – Breadcrumbs on the website could be added or adapted so that they always begin with a ‘Home’ link, which takes users back to the homepage. This would remove the need to offer a home button in the website’s global navigation.

M – The development team could modify the information architecture of the website based on card sorting research to reorganise the menu options to include links currently under ‘More options’.

P – After removing the homepage option, if the ‘More options’ tab is still required, it could be re-used for less frequently used controls currently visible in the website menu.

Chapter 6: Building a Career in User Experience Research

“Technical expertise, although important, is not enough.”

The final chapter in the book identifies three spheres of user experience skills, which together make a great UX researcher: ‘technical’, ‘process’ and ‘marketing’. It identifies that although technical expertise can be gained through training, the other two spheres are harder to meet, and rely on experience and practice.

  1. Process skills: These are the skills that researchers use to manage each project, in order to satisfy the client’s needs and improve the user’s experience. The majority of this lies in understanding the objectives from the project outset, whilst understanding how the client’s company operates. This allows the researcher to tailor the research approach and ensure that the results of the research will be appropriate to drive positive change.
  2. Marketing skills: This is where the researcher must be able to explicitly showcase the benefits of user research to current and potential clients through proposals, case studies and reporting. Particularly for clients new to UX, it is important to identify the cost-benefit of research whilst grounding it in the relevant field or industry. The book also talks about how researchers should aim to leave a legacy, which can be achieved by contributing to the wider UX community through articles (like this), talks and shared artefacts.

Overall, the book has provided me with a great overview of UX principles, which reinforce best practice, whilst introducing a few new tools that I plan to try out in future projects. I particularly liked how each topic was summarised with short questions and exercises (such as the SCAMPER example), as these got me thinking, and highlighted that approaches should always be questioned and adapted to suit individual projects.

 

‘Think Like a UX Researcher’ is a well-structured, inspiring book that I would recommend and will certainly be picking up again!

 

Frances Pike, UX Consultant

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