As this is the season for gratitude, reflection and celebration, first of all, thank you for reading along my thoughts so far sharing yours — it has been an invaluable experience! I wanted the last article to be a celebration of real life. So, here are three approaches for capturing real world in our UX research & design. This article was also inspired by an excellent article on Complicating the Narratives by Amanda Ripley. Her article talks to journalists about the need for covering the complexity of real-world issues and conflicts instead of covering simplistic and polarized opinions. After the reading, I kept thinking if or how this article relates to the work of user research and design — which, like journalism, involves studying real world and portraying the ‘important’ parts in an understandable manner. It took me a while to articulate the trade-off between simplifying the complexity of the real world such that it becomes actionable vs. oversimplification resulting in caricaturized personas and ‘happy flows’ leading to the product being unfit or irrelevant for the real context of use.
Over weeks, as this knot of thoughts continued to unravel, I was able to catch some threads :). So here are three ways on embracing the glorious mess that our (and our users’) lives are and capturing those systematically so that they are digestible instead of overwhelming.
Making personas fallible, real people
A neatly dressed man/woman, with a great job, 2.2 kids, a gentle smile saying they have figured out life — sound familiar as a persona?
As far as I know, the purpose of a persona is to make the user ‘real’ but a lot of personas I see seem to be unrealistic and obscure relevant information instead of presenting the complexity of real life. Look around at your own families and friends — most of time we are in a hurry, possibly irritated, pre-occupied, thinking about the morning fight with our partner, the project deadline, the next weekend, the next holiday, the grades of children and so on — these are the people we have the honor of designing for.
Last year at a conference, a fellow human factors practitioner very graciously described a user for one of the products that I have worked for. The user seemed to be a potentially homeless person, who sleeps on the train station and uses the power outlets at the train station to power his device. Contrary to what I would expect (am guilty of stereotypes too :/), he was articulate and well dressed and could describe his problems with the device very well. Imagine comparing this flesh and blood example with contradictions with the cardboard cut-out personas we sometimes see.
Create personas that are realistic, meaty, and complex and present relevant details of users instead of presenting fluffy, irrelevant information.
Create messy scenarios where things go wrong
The happy flow for a product is just that — and life rarely takes the pre-ordained paths :). So, create and design for use scenarios that are winding, messy, and realistic, including worst case scenarios and all sorts of alternative real-life interruptions.
The Jewish proverb “Man plans, God laughs” is a suitable one when thinking about the scenarios that your device or product or app will be used in.
For example, if you are making an app or software that any kind of adult will be using, then your scenarios should accommodate interruptions by phone calls, children calling out, copy pasting from another app, or closing things by mistake. Another example — if making products for people’s homes — e.g., kitchen or the bathroom, look at the contexts where the counter space may be limited. I have worked on products where, to my surprise, the users were even willing to go for more inconvenient products if they were smaller. And such a tradeoff could only be found in real life, so study the extremes well enough in your user research.
For reference, this poster describes an approach for Writing key use scenarios to help design beyond the ‘Happy Flow’ that I use — Jon Pluyter and I developed this approach and presented it at HFES Healthcare Symposium 2018. Hopefully, will write an article on the approach soon.
User testing ‘in’ real life
The user tests in a lab where we have a quiet, neat room with three chairs rarely represents the lives of people who would be using a certain product (especially hardware products). A cluttered desk with barely enough space, where all the sockets in the extension cord are already in use, is more likely to be a real-life scenario. And in order to get realistic feedback, a realistic context for testing is essential. Some options to simulate the real world in testing are:
- Guerilla testing, e.g., in a train or outdoors in the city, if a product is supposed to be used on the move.
- In case the devices are meant for home use, then conducting the testing at the users’ homes is also an option.
- Longitudinal trials where the users get to take the product home and use it in their everyday life are a great way of evaluating usability and user experience of a product too.
- If all else is impossible, and a lab is the only realistic option, then try to simulate the scenario in your lab — think about re-creating the sounds, light, distractions, amount of space that would represent your observations from real life, as far as possible.
- Create personas that are realistic, meaty, and complex and present relevant details of users instead of presenting fluffy, irrelevant information.
- Create scenarios that are winding, messy, and realistic, including worst case scenarios and all sorts of real-life interruptions.
- For user testing, try using context that are realistic, e.g., guerilla, testing at homes of participants, etc. or simulate the real-life context, including distractions, sub-optimal use conditions, in your labs.
What kind of approaches or tools do you use to design for the real world?