“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Practice, practice, practice.”
This lesson disguised as a joke is something my childhood cello teacher would tell me anytime I got frustrated with a piece of music. The thing about playing Bach’s famous cello suites is that while you’re still in the process of mastering them, you’ll stumble over the same measures, making the same mistakes just about every time you play through it.
It would have been ideal if simply noticing what I needed to work on led to me perfecting that thing immediately. However, like most other crafts and skills, mastery takes time, and most importantly, practice.
Whether you’re a musician, baseball player, or UX researcher, dedicated practice is the one tried-and-true way to grow, and master what you do.
When dealing with a craft like baseball or the cello, the necessity of practice before performance is so obvious, that it’s become a natural part of the preparation process.
Yo-Yo Ma practices the hardest measures of his music, over and over again, hours on end, until he can finally play them without mistakes.
The baseball player Cal Ripkin Jr. kept practicing, refining, and adapting his technique and played in over 2,600 games without needing to sit out due to poor performance or injury. That’s pretty remarkable.
Practice makes perfect; but as a UX researcher, how can you get the practice you need before conducting each real study? You can prepare your questions and come up with a game plan—but there are some things that you’ll only get better at through repetition. Unlike cellists and baseball players, you probably won’t get to do a practice round before doing an actual study. But just because you don’t get a formal dress rehearsal, doesn’t mean there aren’t creative ways for you to exercise your research skills in your everyday life.
Some of the most critical skills for a researcher focused on qualitative methods are observation, understanding, and analysis. Here are 5 ways you can exercise those skills outside of the lab.
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As a researcher, asking the right questions is often more important than having the right answers. Fortunately, we live in a world full of unasked questions, and hypotheses waiting to be tested, so why not capitalize on that for practice?
Start asking yourself questions about the things you see and experience in your everyday life. It could be about people, products, processes—whatever interests you. Satiating your curiosity should be fun!
Try asking questions that you can actually test. Maybe you want to become a better chef or be able to run longer distances, faster. These are perfect opportunities for you to ask questions and experiment! Your chicken soup isn’t where you want it to be. Could you be using the wrong spice or not enough spice? Maybe the problem is actually the broth. You’re trying to be a faster runner. Would doing more sit-ups indirectly improve your run-time? Identify your problems, build your hypothesis, test.
In your experiments, you might find that you initially asked the wrong question. You may even learn more about why different research methods work better for different types of missions and situations. The more you practice curiosity, critical thinking, and research methods, the better you’ll get at asking questions when you’re conducting studies when it really counts.
This may seem like a strange or daunting thing to do, especially if you’re an introverted New Yorker like myself. But building a baseline rapport with your participants is necessary to get the most honest and useful insights. What better way to practice this than by talking to strangers?
The next time you’re at a bar, an event, or even if you find yourself in a conversation at the supermarket (yes, I have done this at the supermarket), give yourself a mission for what you want to learn about whoever you’re talking to, and practice asking questions on the fly. What types of open-ended questions get them talking? Were you able to build a rapport and maintain professionalism, even in a social setting?
If you’re at a bar, maybe you want to find out why someone chooses Coors over Budweiser. When you approach your “subject” to conduct your test interview, you can practice your opening and closing style and see if it feels natural and puts your subject at ease. Observe their body language. How does it change throughout the conversation? Do they uncross their arms and physically open up as they get more comfortable talking to you?
When you’re done, you can try repeating the same series of questions with another person in the room. Try finding out the beer preferences of a few different people at the bar. Maybe you’ll get better at building trust as you practice. Or maybe you’ll vary a question or two to test the questions themselves and learn something about your practices that will help you the next time you conduct a real study.
Avoiding bias is one of the most important qualities in a UX researcher, and increasingly in business in general. You have to care about your users’ perspective, because the only way you can build a product that will help them, is to understand who they are and why they do what they do in context. This means putting your own thoughts aside so you can effectively analyze another person’s perspective without your own biases getting in the way.
When you start talking to new people in random places, you may find yourself interacting with people so outside of your bubble, that you’re quick to judge their views, thoughts, or lifestyle. Maybe you’re an Apple fanatic and you end up talking to a PC buff. *Gasp* Or maybe you’re a Democrat and find yourself in a conversation with a die-hard Republican. Instead of jumping to personal judgments or approaching the conversation as a debate, put on your researcher hat. Ask neutral questions and try to understand why they feel the way that they do, not to convince them of your own worldview
If you can put your bias aside to analyze an opinion you would otherwise strongly oppose, chances are, it’ll be easier to manage your bias in the lab. And while you’re practicing empathy and avoiding bias, you may even find yourself learning and understanding the world as a whole a little better too.
While active practice on your own time is great, you don’t necessarily have to talk to strangers and do mini-experiments all day long to get practice outside of your professional UX research. Social cognition, curiosity, and empathy are things you can practice in your friendships, relationships, and everyday social interactions, without taking up too much of your time or effort.
The human mind is designed to react quickly to most things instead of analyzing every detail before we make an action or decision. This means that so much of understanding why people act and feel the way they do, comes from understanding the subconscious.
It also means we have to train our minds to be aware of the things we do subconsciously in order to recognize it in others. Books like Thinking, Fast and Slow can be a great resource, as well as practices like yoga and meditation.
Think of yourself as a musician or a baseball player. They incorporate practice into their everyday lives to improve their craft. By simply being cognizant of the way humans behave in the real-world, you’ll find yourself discovering things that inform the way you conduct your research. And the more you observe, analyze, and study human behavior as a whole, the better you’ll get at understanding why participants react the way they do when using your product.
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