Embracing Uncertainty in UX Research

Researchers like myself have a nasty habit

Categories: Perspectives — Matt Gallivan

When you spend your days studying how people use products, your intuition around such things gets pretty well-honed. You start to see patterns and themes. You get to a point where you can point to an observed behavior, ask “What might this mean?” and generate some great high-level and philosophical discussions with your stakeholders. People start to seek you out for answers to their questions about users, even when you haven’t done research that could answer those questions.

As a researcher, this can feel pretty great and emboldening. After all, you’ve done the work! You’ve put in countless hours in the lab and in the field and poring over data. You know this stuff pretty well.

At some point, though, you may hear yourself cross the Rubicon. It happens as phrases like “users hate” start slipping out of your mouth during those conversations. Or “people love this stuff,” or “people don’t get this type of interaction.” Overgeneralization starts creeping into your language despite your best instincts and intentions.

You’ve probably seen this happen if you’re a UX researcher. Sometimes you may be the one slowly shaking your head and muttering tsk tsk under your breath as you do. But I bet you catch yourself doing it every now and then, too. And you’re a researcher, you know better! So what’s going on here?

One guess is that UX research as a field suffers from a deep sense of paranoia about not appearing scientific enough. The sense that, by stating limitations to a study and what it can tell you in a setting that’s as fast-moving and results-driven as a digital product company, you’ll be introducing more questions about your value than you will actual value. You’re there to be an expert, right? You damn well better have answers when someone asks you questions.

Embracing the humility needed to state the limitations of your work upfront is an increasingly important part of doing user research well.

This calls to mind an interesting perspective on the field of psychiatry David Brooks wrote not too long ago. In it, he argues that psychiatry and other human sciences — though not particularly well-suited to generalization — are often pressured into borrowing language from the hard sciences to bolster their perceived credibility. “The desire to be more like the hard sciences has distorted economics, education, political science, psychiatry and other behavioral fields. It’s led practitioners to claim more knowledge than they can possibly have. It’s devalued a certain sort of hybrid mentality that is better suited to these realms, the mentality that has one foot in the world of science and one in the liberal arts, that involves bringing multiple vantage points to human behavior.”

This hybrid mentality is a valuable trait to have when studying how people use digital products, too. The work is often fuzzy. It’s subject to circumstance and nuance and influenced by phenomena that are difficult or impossible to measure. The result is that the work often produces an informed perspective on how some people use and feel about very specific things rather than The Truth About How All People Use And Feel About All Things.

This is especially true in an age when the experiences UX researchers are tasked with understanding are increasingly diverse: more types and models of devices keep showing up and old ones keep sticking around, products are increasingly being built to meet just a few needs of a small population rather than many needs of a large population, many of the most exciting new product experiences out there are initiated digitally but occur mostly in the real world, and new products are introducing new interface standards, gestures and interactions all the time.

The experiences we study are fragmenting, and that’s a trend that will only get more dramatic over time. It’s a transition that’s forcing UX research to shift from broad and shallow explorations to deep and narrow ones. The days when a researcher could observe a few folks using a website on a desktop computer, crank out an observation like “users hate carousels” and call it a day are so far behind us it’s difficult to make them out in the rearview mirror.

So why would a user experience researcher write something like this? Why knock the degree to which user research findings can or should be generalized?

Because if you’re a UX researcher, you do yourself and your field no favors when you claim to have all of the answers. In the current digital product landscape, UX research’s real value is in helping to reduce uncertainty. And while that’s not as sexy as knowing everything about everything, there’s great value in it. In fact, it’s critical. It also has the added bonus of being honest.

Embracing the humility needed to state the limitations of your work upfront is an increasingly important part of doing user research well. One consequence of doing so may be fewer people thinking you have the keys to some secret trove of universal wisdom about users. But another may be more people better understanding your role, which is to inject specific insights and inspiration — not always universal truths —into the process of building great products.


A version of this article appeared in Fast Company.

Matt Gallivan is an Experience Research Manager at Airbnb. He used to enjoy reading, hiking and skiing in his spare time but these days just takes Instagrams of his daughter.

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