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UX Burlington 2017: Exploratory Research in UX Design


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Presentation given at the 2017 UX Burlington conference, on the topic of "Exploratory Research in UX Design."

Exploratory research focuses on gaining a deep understanding of the lives of the end users and the contexts in which they use certain products and services. At its core, it’s about challenging and exploring the problem space, before venturing into the solution space. Using real-life examples of digital tools that help people access affordable housing or register to vote, this talk will explore the different tools used for exploratory research, including ethnographic interviews, contextual inquiry, and co-creation activities and prompts. This talk will leave the audience with a better understanding of the types of insights that exploratory research generates, and how they can complement the findings of evaluative or comparative research.

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UX Burlington 2017: Exploratory Research in UX Design

  1. 1. Sarah Fathallah Exploratory Research in UX Design UX Burlington
  2. 2. Show of Hands!
  3. 3. I What is Exploratory Research? II Why is Exploratory Research valuable? III How to conduct Exploratory Research?
  5. 5. “ Exploratory research is conducted about a problem when there are few or no earlier studies to refer to. The focus is on gaining insights and familiarity for later investigation or undertaken when problems are in a preliminary stage of investigation. — Research Methods in the Social Sciences, Lynn University
  6. 6. Exploratory Research Problem Space Solution Space Evaluative Research
  7. 7. Exploratory research aims... (Also called generative research) … to gain a deeper understanding of the users, their lives, how a specific product or service fits in context of their personal or work environment. It helps us understand some of the foundational needs that are core to who they are, that don’t change easily over time.
  9. 9. The value of exploratory research lies in: Defining the problem space
  10. 10. The value of exploratory research lies in: Defining the problem space Reevaluating the problem space
  11. 11. The value of exploratory research lies in: Defining the problem space Expanding the problem space Reevaluating the problem space
  12. 12. Defining the Problem Space Project: Affordable housing application process
  13. 13. Defining the problem space • When first engaging with local non-profit Bread for the City, the problem hadn’t been addressed yet. • Research focused on understanding the overall experience of their housing program clients. • This drove us to identify Section 8 applicants as the target user group, and focus on how they deal with the current paper-based application process, leading us to build a web-based tool to improve that experience.
  14. 14. Reevaluating the Problem Space Project: CNC machine and operator interaction
  15. 15. Reevaluating the problem space • Research aimed to understand all the instances where humans interact with CNC machines. • This led us to shift the focus from the operators on the shop floor to include process engineers and quality inspectors, and build a completely new solution that helps reduce errors in producing workpieces while saving time and resources.
  16. 16. Expanding the Problem Space Project: First-time voter experience
  17. 17. Expanding the problem space • When engaging with client Democracy Works, the initial focus was to improve flagship tool TurboVote, particularly the onboarding process. • Research sought to understand how users experience the voter registration and voting process as a whole. • This led us to expand the focus from TurboVote as a tool to get election-related notifications to a tool that helps you navigate the electoral system from beginning to end.
  19. 19. The different stages of exploratory research • Scoping research • Recruiting participants • Conducting research • Analyzing learnings • Communicating learnings
  21. 21. 1. What are your research questions? What questions need to be answered to move the project forward? 2. Which research activities will you use? What telling vs. showing, independent vs. guided methods will you need to use? 3. What participants do you need? What stakeholder groups do you need? How many do you need to talk to from each group? 4. How will you find and recruit participants? How will you recruit people for each method? What will you offer as incentives (if anything)? 5. How will you account for bias? How do you identify your bias and that of your stakeholders? How do you minimize that bias? 9 Questions
  22. 22. 6. How will you capture your data? What equipment and cheat sheets will you need to help data collection go smoothly? How will you store your data? 7. How will you analyze your data? What analysis methods will you use? What are the materials, spaces, and people that you will need to do them? 8. What deliverables will you create? Who is the client/intended audience? What are their assumptions and expectations? How will they use the information? 9. What resources do you have? Man hours, timeline, budget, equipment, etc. – What’s available or can be obtained? 9 Questions
  23. 23. How many participants is enough? It’s a tricky (and contentious!) question.
  24. 24. In evaluative research, consensus around N = 5 for usability studies (Nielsen Norman Group). But how about exploratory research? How many participants is enough?
  25. 25. The real answer is: “It depends.” • The more homogenous a cohort is, the smaller the sample size needed (Susan C. Weller, Cultural Consensus Theory). • The more targeted or narrow the question, the smaller the sample (Baker & Rosalind). • Aim to minimize bias through diversity (socio-economic differences, family situation, education level, ethnicity, geography, etc.). • Aim to reach "saturation" (= when you begin to get tired of hearing the same things). How many participants is enough?
  27. 27. Different Recruiting Methods Professional Recruiter Friends and Family Online Ads Snowball Recruiting Intercept Participants
  28. 28. PROFESSIONAL RECRUITING AGENCIES Access! Access! Access! Once you pay them and define the screener, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. THROUGH THE CLIENT OR PARTNER Tap into existing relationships. But, we may come pre-endorsed… For employees, participants think we are there to judge them.
  29. 29. INTERCEPT RECRUITING Be prepared for rejection. Types of users can swing wildly from really honest, wanting to help type of people to those who are just in it for the gift card/incentive. SNOWBALL RECRUITING Be opportunistic! Particularly useful for rare or unique participant profiles, or geographic areas that may not be covered by recruiting agencies.
  30. 30. ONLINE ADS Still (relatively) cheap. Depending on the platform used, some may work better for the desired participant profile. FRIENDS AND FAMILY If you are a believer in the 7 degrees of separation, this is the perfect recruiting method. But, you may have a hard time establishing yourself as a neutral researcher.
  31. 31. Recruiting Methods Pros+Cons Recruitment Method Benefits Drawbacks Professional recruiter • Easiest to manage • Expensive • “Professional” respondents Friends and family, Social networks • Convenient • Least expensive • Willing participants • “Too close” respondents Craigslist, Facebook Ads, Online Ads • Cheaper • Relatively easy to manage • Difficult to manage • “Professional” respondents • Potential for flakes Snowball • Convenient • “Novice” respondents • Suited for “frontier” areas • Potential lack of variety • Unpredictable Intercepts • Less expensive • “Novice” respondents • Often lack time/depth • Low response rate
  32. 32. Main recruiting method Through the Client Main recruiting method Friends and Family Main recruiting method Social media Ads
  34. 34. Exploratory Research Methods Telling Showing GuidedIndependent 1 Discussions 2 Activities 3 Observations 4 Homework
  35. 35. INDIVIDUAL VS. GROUP INTERVIEWS 1. Discussions • Individual interviews offer more depth. • Group interviews or focus groups can be useful to look at how a larger set of people operates, reflects a community’s life and dynamics. They’re also useful for courtesy interviews (it’s quicker!).
  36. 36. GAMES AND ACTIVITIES Probably the least “replicable” of all methods, highly dependent on topic at hand. Examples: • Card sorting • Photo elicitation • Object elicitation • ”Draw me a…” • Journey mapping • Word associations • Forced ranking • Role playing 2. Activities
  37. 37. FOUR TECHNIQUES FOR OBSERVATIONAL RESEARCH 3. Observations Counting Occurrences • Counting with a tally sheet is one of the simplest observational techniques, useful in building assumptions. Timing Durations • The amount of time people spend doing specific activities can tell us a great deal about the overall consumer experience. Diagramming Interactions • Good tool for understanding the system of people within which a user performs (e.g. helpers, blockers, influencers, etc.) Mapping Movement • Go-to technique to focus on the movement of people or things through space.
  38. 38. HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENTS Can take different forms: • Diary study • Photo diary • Surveys/questionnaires • Mystery shopping (i.e. a tool that involves sending participants to places of business, government agencies, or other service providers to simulate a typical customer inquiry) 4. Homework
  39. 39. Main research method Focus Groups Main research method Individual Interviews Main research method Games and Activities
  41. 41. Data Analysis Approaches Grounded Theory Approach Deductive Reasoning Approach Generate theories on the basis of primary research data and findings. Through induction. More suitable for exploratory research. Generate theories on the basis of pre- determined hypotheses, which are then tested. Through deduction. More suitable for evaluative research.
  43. 43. Principles for Communicating Findings 1 2 3 Tell a story Tell a detailed story that ties a strong thread between the problem space, the research scope, the learnings and surprises, the analysis, and the findings. Make it sticky Keep it short and visual. Make it memorable. Make it shareable Ensure the story can stand on its own after you’re out of the picture. Make it exciting enough that people want to share it around.
  44. 44. Format Options Descriptive Prescriptive Enables independent conclusions Suggests actions to be taken Quotes and Stories Scenarios Observations Functional Analogies Photographs Recommendations Experiential Presentational Provides an interactive experience Broadcasts data and insights Interactive Games Video or Audio Clips Immersions Slide Decks Narratives Written Reports Abstracted Detailed Simplified information Richly described information Posters and Displays Photographs User Scenarios Personas Insight Summaries Database of raw data Tangible Virtual Can be touched/manipulated Non-physical artifacts Prototypes Video/Audio Artifacts Take-aways Written Artifacts/Websites
  45. 45. Main deliverable Research Insights Deck Main deliverable Immersive Experience Main deliverable Main Insights Video
  46. 46. Any questions?
  47. 47. Thank you! You can find me at Or connect with me @Sfath 47