Has User Experience Research Been Eating Too Much Junk Food?

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There is no doubt about it, UX is a hot topic. Some say it is design thinking, others call it user-centered design. But no matter how you describe it, UX will be a major force going forward.

The tech world has previously been all about software engineering and what code could do. But now, coding is becoming increasingly commoditized. It is the consumer interface of the technology that matters most, and that makes sense. The face dictates the brand experience, customer acceptance and ease-of-use. It influences support costs and directly impacts sales. If you look at all the hot tech from the last few years — Alexa, Facebook, wearables, voice recognition, VR, Twitter, etc. — they all have simple and understandable user interface concepts. It matters, not the least because countless studies tell us that the number one reason for consumers abandoning any given digital product or service is a poor user experience.

The Gold Rush of UX Experts

This shift toward design has triggered a “UX gold rush.” Where UX work was once the realm of specialized cognitive psychologists and human computer interaction experts, now every advertising agency, web developer and even offshore development houses say they are UX experts.

Is this bad? Yes and no. It’s bad because so many poor-quality services and products are being peddled under those two letters — UX — a serious erosion is taking place in the field overall. It’s good because it makes the voice of the customer accessible to anyone that wants it.

But there’s a rub.

Most people do not know good UX practices from bad, talented people from pretenders, and sound research insights from guesses — all legitimized by saying that a “UX expert” looked at it. Bottom line, the quality of UX has massively eroded to the point at which the field is at risk of being destroyed. Not by name. The name, or related names, will continue. It is what is the integrity behind the UX practice that is in danger.

Forces Behind the Erosion of User Experience Research

One of the forces that has created the erosion of user experience research is online usability testing services. Rather than having target customers go into traditional usability labs with a professional researcher, anyone can now create a test online, claim they got feedback and move on. It is fast, convenient and less expensive. They convince others that the right work was done. People don’t know enough to question the methods, and important decisions are effectively made with no substance behind the feedback. And the race to the bottom accelerates in perpetuity.

The unspoken secret, however, is that meaningful user experience research is not about saying that something was shown to people and the interaction was recorded. The most important factor is how to conduct testing in a way in which bias is not introduced and to strive for relative data uniformity across all feedback so that you can look at normalized data and make an accurate assessment.

Another important factor is the setting. If people are not at ease, they will give very different answers than when they feel comfortable. The current generation of online tools just gives people cold forms to fill out. The human touch that creates psychological ease is absent.

The Next Generation of UX Research Tools

So what to do? Try to roll back the use of online tools to gather customer insights? That cat is out of the bag. It is too gosh-darned convenient to use rapid online tools, and people love convenience. No, the answer is that a new generation of tools is needed — smarter and more capable — tools that act both as productivity enhancers and teachers.

Let’s imagine the form that these tools will take. First, the tools should not provide a raw capability. Rather, they should provide users with “best practice” information on how to correctly conduct online research. There’s no guarantee that people will internalize this information, but by making it accessible and building it into the testing process, it will increase the validity of the feedback that is covered.

Testing over time with online diary studies: The tool needs to provide the fundamentals of being able to record target users — not just screen images and audio of a particular moment in time. Rather, it also needs to allow the capture of usage over an extended period as an online diary study. The logic is straightforward; adoption of a product cannot solely be assessed by recording a single moment. The online diary study technique can exist hand-in-hand with usability studies. Other techniques can also be part of a study being conducted.

Eliminating data silos with a single integrated platform: This brings us to data. The data needs to be manageable as part of a single study. Currently, people have to use different online tools from different vendors with no way of bringing these findings together. Additionally, the majority of people doing user experience research still use a spreadsheet — a 40-year-old tool — to cut and paste data from multiple sources.

Scaling speed with AI: Then, there is the speed that people want. Online testing is not that speedy if you have to sit and look at all the videos that were recorded. A superior solution needs to leverage artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and other methods to automatically generate a report that identifies the biggest problem areas, providing expertise to correctly interpret the data.

AI-style features can be used to create natural language dialogue with the people that are testing by reacting to the feedback they are providing in the way that an expert user experience researcher reacts in a usability lab. This will improve the quality of the data being gathered.

Increasing access through affordability: With these fundamentals in place, the issue becomes access. The current generation of tools are surprisingly expensive. Some require a $10K or even $25K license for large projects. So price is an important factor. If these tools are going to truly improve businesses and the quality of tech solutions, they need to be affordable for one-person dreamers and large corporations alike.

Breaking the language barrier: Lastly, most of the tools available on the market were built in the U.S., and they have a clear American bias. Most only work in English, yet the tech market is global. The next-generation tools need to address the language barrier and allow customer insights to be easily gathered globally, and that means making them available in multiple languages.

Is good user experience research dead? No, but it has been eating a lot of junk food lately. The hope is that a new generation of UX tools will introduce some badly needed “fruits and vegetables” to improve the overall health of UX work being done today by small business owners as well as large corporate UX teams.

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