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Variations in Gathering User Data

I had the great pleasure of witnessing two of my fellow researchers describe their research processes at last Tuesday’s session of BayCHI. These researchers were Kate Rutter of Adaptive Path and Steve Portigal of Portigal Consulting.

I was quickly struck by the similarities and differences between the methods employed by Kate, Steve, and myself. While we all sought structured ways to extract the user experience, the ways in which we each did that were absolutely a reflection of our different backgrounds.

My background is in experimental psychology and philosophy with a focus on communication and some additional training in hostage negotiation. As a result, my methods are primarily rooted in research design, communication, and logic.

Because my partner and I come from a background that includes communication and psychology, we rely on these skills to ensure rich and accurate data. We’ve always found that putting a participant at ease and asking the right questions in the right way helps the participant to open up and speak to us with the same ease as a close friend or family member. We’ve used thse same skills to convey concepts to design teams and stakeholders, working closely to establish solutions that craft a positive user experience.

I found in these talks that Kate and Steve managed to achieve similar results but through different means.

Kate’s method of research seemed to reflect her background quite sharply. With training in fine art, she was extremely comfortable conceiving and communicating concepts with images. She uses jotting techniques (quick sketches) to immediately capture ideas conveyed by the user and then synthesizes these jots into more fleshed out concept sketches that convey the experience quite effectively. When I tried the techniques for myself in some of Kate’s exercises, I quickly found that I was much more comfortable expressing myself with words, no doubt a reflection of my training with communication and as a writer. But I was impressed with her ability to communicate concepts visually, which I’m sure would resonate well with designers, many of whom also have art backgrounds.

The one concern that I had with this approach was the potential for ambiguity with visual communication. I can certainly view a piece of art and walk away with a completely different impression than the artist intended. I wonder if the unspoken elements that compose these sketches are not always received in the way that Kate intends, but I’m sure that communication about the sketches serves to clarify any ambiguity.

Steve’s methods are more similar to my own. His methods are language based and he likes to work in a team, much like we do at ActiveComm Labs. Steve uses structured processes such as daily summaries to help crystallize the thoughts of researchers for team consumption. Teams members then go back through the raw data, extracting anything at all that strikes them as interesting without any guiding principles. Afterwards, field sessions are reported to the team as a case study before engaging in an ideation process that includes ideation questions as well as possible solutions and specific strategies for product design and development.

It was very interesting to see how each of these researchers had placed their personal stamp on research and it also helped me to see how our method of performing research reflected our personalities and backgrounds.

In the end, I think it’s extremely important that there be a variety of flavors of research because, as we all know, not all users are the same and it can take a variety of approaches to extract the data needed to build great products. Therefore, it’s important for researchers in the field to add these approaches, and others like them, to their repertoire much like we at ActiveComm Labs strive to do. With that said, I’ll be practicing my jotting!