Posts tagged “Stamen”

Wherefore art thou, User?

Lately we’ve been hearing and responding to a lot of chatter in the only-boring-stodgy-Microsoft-types-do-research vein, with language that essentially boils all user research down to testing tools that hinder the creative design process (see Don Norman hates research, Michal Migurski comes out against it).

But user research, at least as we conceive and practice it, is a different animal altogether. Testing relies on existing objects or realities and measures response against them. User research for design and innovation observes, examines, imagines and inspires. Here are just a few things that good user research can do.

  • Broaden the scope. Instead of asking people what they think of these newfangled eBooks, we took a deeper look, to understand how reading is changing and what people value. This led to actionable, inspirational design insights such as, “Books are more than just pages with words and pictures; they are imbued with personal history, future aspirations, and signifiers of identity. And, “There are opportunities to enhance digital reading by replicating, referencing, and replacing social (and other) aspects of traditional book reading.” (Read about Portigal Consulting’s Reading Ahead project here)
  • Discover meaning. Design Continuum explored the car rental experience with a group of Harvard Business Students recently to discover opportunities for improvement and innovation along numerous touch-points throughout the journey, inspiring students to envision altogether new experiences beyond the typical drudgery of current practice. (Description of event on Design Continuum’s blog here)
  • Shift perspective. Wells Fargo engaged with a small number of customers to understand that consumers’ experiences and world views are fundamentally different from the internal company view. This shed a whole lot of light on how to improve communications and experiences across internal organizational silos. (Excerpt from a Forrester white paper on this project here)

Alex Faaborg of Firefox channeled Don Norman’s take on design approaches during a recent ZURBSoapbox event,

There are two distinct approaches to design. One focuses on user-research to find out what people need/want. This approach is exemplified by Microsoft and is used mostly to mitigate risk. The downside of this ‘user testing’ model is that users can lead you astray. For example, if you ask everyone what their favorite color is the average will be gray. The second tries to bring a specific vision to life and an impression of the user they want to have. This approach is exemplified by Apple and can result in huge success or failure.

Now, while Faaborg mostly touts the second more glorious path, he does acknowledge “If designers don’t know what they’re doing it could be a disaster.”

How will designers “know” what they’re doing? Or, in this heroic design model, is there room only for psychic, infallible, savant designers who do just somehow “know?” Where does this leave the consumer, or “user,” or, as they are also known, people?

We believe that including people in the process of designing products for people is a good idea, and serves to drive great design and business concept development rather than preventing it.

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 .


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