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Sometimes, to learn how to do better UX research, you have to fail
As a cofounder of the The UXR Conference in Toronto, Alec Levin has reviewed a lot of potential speakers. Over the years, topics have followed some general themes. For a while, everybody wanted to talk about how to get stakeholders on board. This year, Alec says, one of the main themes was having a point of view vs. trying to stay as unbiased as possible when presenting your research. We asked him to share what he’d like to see more of in the next few years. His answer? He wants more people to get things wrong.
Alec put it like this—
If you’re batting 100% on all your points of view, you’re not trying hard enough. You’re working on stuff that’s too easy.
In other words, if you’re coming out of every research study having found exactly what you thought you would, what are you really learning? Are you truly enriching your teams understanding of your users, or are you just validating your ideas?
Early in Alec’s career, he was convinced that the only research method worth using was user interviews. He wanted to be able to sit down and have a conversation with each and every person he was going to be researching. Surveys, unmoderated testing, etc. were too cold, and often didn’t give him the context he wanted.
After some time working with great teams, full of both researchers and people who do research, Alec has realized this wasn’t the right way to think about it. He couldn’t just write off all the other methods of research and only do user interviews forever. There were contexts that called for unmoderated testing and even surveys. In fact, there are many instances in which those things are better suited to learning the information you need than user interviews.
Though Alec was wrong to think that user interviews were the end all be all research method, he did take something valuable from that line of thinking. He now tries to incorporate that curiosity for context into every type of research he does.
Alec still sees these kinds of changes in perception happening through the The UXR Conference. This year, he said, there were many speakers that people didn’t agree with wholeheartedly. That’s a good thing, because it opens up an opportunity for dialogue and brings us closer to an answer that is right. It forces people to reexamine their way of thinking and find evidence to support their arguments, as Alec did with his views on research methods.
Being open and honest about what you do and how you do it shouldn’t be a radical position. But it is. It’s hard to be transparent, especially with stakeholders and teammates. It’s hard to get in front of a room of your peers and say “I did this big project, but I don’t have a clear answer,” or “The research showed the direction we’re going in is wrong.” Research digs in to some really fuzzy, difficult to define, or just plain difficult questions. So sometimes, the answers we find are also a little difficult to nail down.
Alec advocates for having a transparent conversation about this when you start your research. This can help your team nail down what you should be focusing on, or just to talk through some of the things that are most important to your project. This makes it easier for everyone to stay on the same page when the research does get difficult.
JH also offered some good advice on remaining transparent. He said remaining transparent throughout your process makes it easier for everyone to get on board with whatever experiment you’re doing, regardless of the outcome. Letting everyone in on your thought process makes it easier for everyone to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you’re providing value to your team, even when you fail.
When I was in college (studying copywriting), we constantly did exercises to improve our creative writing skills. We would write nonstop for 15 minutes, jot down as many headline ideas as we could think of, and even sat around in circles writing word at a time stories. Researchers can also benefit from creative challenges and exercises to improve their practice. Jing Jing Tan, one of the speakers at The UXR Conference, uses a plotting excecise to enrich her user interviews. This involves the researcher and the participant drawing on a whiteboard together, creating an interactive environment and an artifact the researcher can use in their analysis.
Alec and JH took some creative inspiration from product teams, who use a “retro” meeting to take some time to reflect on how their team is doing. Alec has used a format in which everyone writes something in “happy/sad/mad” columns. This forces people to write down negatives they may not voice otherwise, and helps teams make meaningful changes to the way they approach problems together.
At User Interviews, we also have a retro meeting. When the company was only six people, four of whom were the product team, it seemed weird to leave two people out of the meeting. As we’ve grown into a team of 24, retro has stayed a team-wide meeting. Once a month, everyone gets an opportunity to write down what’s going well and what’s not. Once our answers are all submitted, we take an hour to sit down as a team and discuss what we shared. A lot of great developments have come out of our retro meetings, like a monthly wellness stipend, weekly founder updates, and even our culture handbook.
You can get creative through different research methods, retro meetings, or just by approaching your research projects in a different way. The important thing is to keep iterating, growing, and pushing the boundaries of what you can do with your research, even if you’re wrong sometimes.
Carrie Boyd is a Content Creator at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.