A journalistic approach to User Experience Research

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About 15 years ago, when we were still using Nokia and Ericsson phones, and there was no such thing as User Experience, the boss of the newspaper I was working for, which owned also a beer brewery, one of the biggest in Albania, just introduced the new product and delivery method, that was supposed to be a big success, but..!

He was pissed off with his administrator, his beer technicians, sales department, and generally everybody. So he gave the board one week to find out was going wrong, and the job dropped down and down till it fell on my desk.

And I did what I did best: investigate. I interviewed everybody, and talked even to the beer lovers around me.

Sometime, after a week, I needed to explain my research findings to a group of people made up of marketeers, beer technicians, administrators and some of my colleagues journalists, all working in some form to promote the new product.

After talking for about 15 minutes I lost the technicians, the marketeers and the web designer that had worked on the new ordering platform; only the journalistic staff was following. I thought maybe I was not clear on my conclusions, or maybe my language was too journalistic. The technicians took pride on their beer, the marketeers knew that the drinkers wanted their product, and the designer was offended by my suggestion to downgrade the distribution process from web, back to phone, fading inn bit by bit the new web ordering system.

The only one that did not get offended was the boss, which, after saying “I told you”, ordered the team back on the old trusted system.

15 years ago, most of Albanian homes had no internet; penetration was just 30-40% and the beer distributors had other things on their mind to have the time to change their business habits overnight.

This was my first experience with Usability, and it had a great influence in my future work in UX Research. I have always treated my projects as journalistic investigations, with no prejudice, and no set goals apart from one: Find what is wrong. Though, this mindset has not been easy to understand by many product owners with whom I have had the pleasure to work with.   

UX Research is often mixed or considered an extension of UX Design, and this is why most designers consider themselves researchers too. Don’t get me wrong; I have met some good designers with great research skills in their arsenal, but generally these are talented people who would be OK in any situation.

A UX researcher is not a UX designer, and her/his job is not to build, it is to Inspect, Investigate, and Inspire. Separating those roles is critical; the clearer the separation, the better the end result.

The skill set of a UX researcher should be similar with that of a journalist; the design skills are an add-on that will make you a better researcher. I know this is sensitive discussion, but this is my opinion.

The following are my base principles of Usability Research with a strong flavor of journalism.

Find out what is wrong

  • Stone cold. The cooler the better. Empathy is a designers virtue, and arrogance is a product owner’s sin. The researcher must not have any preferred outcome, no vested interest, no emotional connection. Read about journalistic impartiality and personal detachment.
  • Observe. Be patient and learn to hear and see everything. Most of the time the problem is where no one has bothered to look inn. That’s why they have called you. Be methodical and slow. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Rushing has never helped anybody. Learn about journalistic investigative techniques, interviewing, and OSINT.  
  • Ruthless but fair. Don’t be afraid to hurt anybody’s feeling, the truth is what it is, but think it well before pointing fingers. Your conclusions should come only based on the facts collected and analyzed with impartiality. Truth is a journalist’s beacon that often doesn’t lead to safe harbor, but you have to follow it.
  • Overkill. In research you can never have too much data. The ideal Usability Research would be based on the data collected from 100% of users and 100% of non-users. Knowing this, be careful when deciding when is enough data. Follow every research lead, even the small and faint ones. Be sure you have all you need before sitting to write your conclusions. No good journalist will right a story without verification of facts.
  • Open Your Mind. Don’t be afraid to go back in time. The most used sentence by the users is: For an older version. Designers have the habit of fixing things that are working perfectly. The redesign should simplify things, if it is complicating the experience, regress is the only progress possible. Learn about Occam’s Razor.
  • Don’t remember. Write down and visualize everything. A great mind is not a data storage device, is a solution finding processor. The developers won’t be able to read your mind if you forget to tell them something. Build an index of your work and maybe a database if you are not working alone. A good journalist has only two tools: camera and notebook.

Inspire change

  • Evolution, not Revolution. Radical changes are hated by everybody. Even the most intuitive design will fail if the user is placed suddenly in an unfamiliar habitat.
  • Solutions, not Resolution. Don’t design, inspire. Focus in telling the story you have discovered and transmit your conclusions to the design team.
  • The future’s not set in stone. Think of as many solutions as possible. If you think there can be more than one path, don’t hold back.