HOW TO: Avoid Subjectivity In UX Research

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In a comment on a previous article (in Linkedin) about user interview tips, Joanna Forsyth (whom I like to thank) pointed out that even we try to take in to account the subjectivity of the users during research interviews, we worry little about our own subjectivity as researchers. She is so right. This topic is so important to the scientific and journalistic discovery to being taught as a separate subject academically.

Of equal importance, it is for usability studies, and I’m not minimizing the discussion on web and app design, rather including here all sorts of usability, from plant training to the satellite orbital control. The fact that your project is a tiny speck of dust in this immense world doesn’t free you from the obligation to be objective, intellectually honest and a master of self-critique.

In my professional life, I have had my share of irrational subjectivity, but I have learned the hard way that objectivity is the only safe road to walk on. So, I have 5 sacred pillars, which I never do without in research of anything, including here usability.

INTELLECTUAL HONESTY

In a few words, it is the capacity to recognize your own bull-shit. It is the foundation of self-critique, the most important tool for growing professionally and as a human being. If you cannot be honest with your self, your research will reflect your bias and prejudice. You will see the color shade of your mental filters in the face of your research subjects. This will reflect in your questions and observation parameters.

As a researcher, you have to go deeper than just the most obvious bias, you have to dig deep into your soul and search for any preconception that could influence your research, and I’m not talking about the research results and analyses, you have to do this before you even start. This has to be the first step in choosing research methodology, users to be observed and interviewed, the line of questioning and the preferred result presentation. Let me give you a few examples.

You are a pretty, young researcher and the men’s attention makes you uncomfortable, or you are a handsome dude full of muscles that like to talk to the ladies, in both cases, with no malice what so ever, you will choose, in a second, female subjects to be interviewed. Now, you recognize this and try to balance the group, but you will be still off target because you are still acting based on your prejudice, even though against it. So, the best way to go is to forget the sex of your subjects and focus on their other traits. It may come out that your subjects will be mostly females, but you have to be sure they are not so because you like it that way.

You are a well educated tech-savvy person and so are all your friends. It is easy to assume that everybody is like you. WRONG! Most of the people using computers professionally today may know quite a lot about their base programs, but they have no idea about anything outside their professional habitat. So, focus your research questions on targets that are as narrow as possible, so you can get consistent data from all subjects.

Girls in hijab do not play Minecraft and Greens do not like Counter Strike! Says who? Keep your politics and religious views out of your research. Humans can’t fly either, but we do it a lot.

I can go on explaining more of my own prejudices, but what’s the point, you get my drift now. So, before you start to choose your methodology, tools, and user groups, sit down and write all you have against and pro the project in front of you. Visualize and verbalize: confession is good for the soul.

LOGIC

This is the tool which confirms that humans can fly. You can study logic and be amazed by it, but keep it simple and use math to confirm your logic. Statistics and repetition are the foundations of sound research results. There will be times when what you observe won’t make sense, but it will if you keep it logical, go a bit deeper, and do not forget the first pillar.

AESTHETICS

Red symbolizes love in Europe and death in Africa, communism in Russia and the Republican party in the USA. Green is the colour of the money in the movies, but green is also the colour of Venus, the goddess of love. In Islam, white is the colour of death and black the colour of life. Learn about cultural beauty and aesthetics in general. It will give you a deeper understanding of your research subjects and yourself. It will help you be objective and will make it easy to achieve realistic results. It will help you dress better too.

TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE

This suggestion may be offensive to some; of course, you know all about software and hardware, this is just another app! Remember the first two pillars and start from scratch. You are the first usability subject. What you will see will shape the methodology and course of your research, and “I know” is the greatest and the most sinful preconception of all UX researchers. Do your homework. Learn all you can about the application or service you are researching. This will help you be more empathic in your observation and interviews, but don’t forget: Just technical knowledge! You are not there to like or hate anything, you are there to find out what is wrong and how to make it better.

HARD SKIN

This is the most important pillar. If you have this, you can learn the others. Without this, you better go find another job.

Be open to critique. Accept it and say thank you. Analyze it and use it or ignore it, but never fight it. Fighting the critique is a sign of weakness and consciousness of guilt. If you find yourself doing this there is a great chance that you are in fault. Don’t be a pussy, learn to take it and work hard to leave the room with a mic drop.

You will be called back.