URF10: Research, Creativity and Astonishment
Many thanks to our friends at Bolt|Peters for hosting an energizing User Research Friday last week! Dan and I heard a recurring theme of research and creativity, both in method and mindset. Dan noted that several people spoke about research and creativity as though they were separate, and that combining them was somehow novel. But research done well, from framing the problem through storytelling, is creative by nature!
In particular I was struck by how Michal Migurski of Stamen (see his annotated slides here and video here) framed his discussion on their creative visualizations of information streams for Digg Labs and the Twitter Track for the Olympics (to name just a couple) as research-free, when we saw their work as a terrific illustration of a pretty standard method: Using stimulus (in this case the visualizations themselves) to do rapid prototyping based on immediate user feedback, all as a way to guide development. He even talked about Digg Labs as a “wide-open playing ground” for this kind of cycle of experimentation.
One of many visualizations on Digg Labs
NBC Olympics Real Time Twitter Tracker
Even beyond that, Migurski implied that Stamen’s visualizations have become research tools that help people to understand, navigate and make use of vast swathes of data, such as the journalist who keeps the Digg example up on his screen as a snapshot of what’s got buzz. So Stamen’s gorgeous visualizations are really a product of research as well as possibly a nascent research method. If their creation doesn’t feel to Migurski like deliberate research methods are being employed that may be because it’s just so embedded in their process. I’d argue that’s the best kind of research: an integral part of the process.
Now, terms like “User Research” are slippery, but I do object to his definition:
“User research, to me, is an attempt to mitigate and control astonishment by determining what an audience believes or expects, and where possible delivering on that belief and expectation. User research promises stability and predictable outcomes, and I think that we’re at a curve in the road where the idea of stability is just not all that interesting.”
This sounds like the objectives of conventional focus group or usability testing, not the front-end discovery methods that are at the core of our discipline. Our goal is not simply to determine what consumers believe or expect and then use those observations as marching orders, but to creatively synthesize these discoveries into insights about what people need and value, in order to drive the development of experiences and products that delight and (why not!) astonish.
Overall, the content at URF10 left us hungry for more discussion about how creative research methods are used as a set of inputs and methods that complement and inform design and business strategy at many stages of the development process.
Finally, a tip of the hat to presenter Ed Langstroth of Volkswagen for telling us about the “Party Mode” button (which turns up the bass in the back of the vehicle) on the new Toyota 4-Runner:
For more User Research Friday goodness, check out Steve’s 2008 User Research Friday presentation: Research and Design: Ships in the Night? (slides, audio, and video here) and the subsequent articles in interactions: Part I and Part II .