The Science of UX, Part 1: Seek First to Understand…Your Elephant
A blog series by Drory Ben-Menachem, Creative Director
Those of you familiar with Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People will recognize at least a part of this phrase. In the world of UX, your users are people just like anyone else and they each have a different perspective on the world around them. Understanding as much of their perspective as possible, beyond the context of the product or service you are offering, will better empower you to generate an offering that appeals to them – possibly in ways you may have not initially considered.
So how do we gather that understanding? This is where the reference to the elephant will start to make sense.
You’ve likely heard the fable of the blind men and the elephant before. Some blind men happen upon an elephant. Having never encountered such a creature, they begin to explore the elephant by touch in an attempt to identify it. One feels the trunk and pronounces it a snake. Another feels a leg and claims it’s a tree. And so on. But none can see the big picture.
There is no shortage of research methods – and no shortage of highly-skilled purveyors of such – in our industry. To name just a few: card-sorting, clickstream analysis, field studies, focus groups, market research, mental-model mapping, search analytics, usability testing, user interviews, etc. Each of these methods is like one of those blind men. Each does an amazing job at studying and analyzing its trunk or leg, but none used on their own can see the elephant because their focus is too narrow. The result can often be a disjointed, expensive collection of partial answers, and a glaring lack of insight.
The key to holistic understanding of your audience is focusing not on the data itself, but the connections and relationships it exposes. You’re likely familiar with the Agile concept of Minimum Viable Product Think of this as Minimum Viable Research. Using just enough of a wide range of research methods to help paint the most complete picture of your users’ perception as possible, empowers you to move forward with meaningful insight and direction.
We refer to this as an “outside-in” approach – think of it as akin to focusing the lens of a camera. At first the scene is blurry, but you have enough information to orient yourself. As you improve the focus, you’re able to discern greater levels of detail and more effectively “frame your shot” for the appropriate level of context. Zooming in or out will define the scope of your story, and may reveal surprising aspects previously unseen. The research methods mentioned above are still valuable at the right phases of the project to glean deeper understanding, but we also include methods such as contextual design, experience mapping, and 5-Whys to avoid “analysis paralysis” and maintain both perspective and velocity on a project or initiative.
We know that the fate of the blind men is not always hopeless. In some versions of the fable, the blind men talk to each other in greater detail about what they’ve discovered and begin to form a collective understanding that is greater than the sum of its observational parts. We call this “externalizing the conversation” – a practice that has become more popular with the advent of Lean UX – inviting others to learn what we know and add their own insights to the collective understanding. This helps us craft a more holistic perspective on the users’ needs, motivations and pain-points – bringing the solution into sharper focus.
In the end, no design works unless it embodies ideas that are held common by the people for whom the object is intended.