17 December 2011

Single-minded social networkers?

Some recent research of mine has been into social network and particularly how they encourage further participation and wider networks by suggesting people to 'follow', 'friend' or 'like'. Some of these are worrying me but not for the usual reasons of privacy invasion and so on...

My biggest concern is that the social graph is used to suggest others. This, in simplistic terms, tries to work out where a person (or 'node') lies in relation to every other person. Any other 'node' that lies near must be related, right? So if you follow someone, then that person's 'follows' must also be of interest to you.

But it has the implication that we are unidimensional. If one person who touches on a subject is of interest to us, then someone else who does the same must be? The assumption is that everyone is inter-connected and that a float number that indicates relatedness transfers to the real world. If I know person 'A' well and person 'A' knows 'person 'B' equally well, then I will probably know person 'B' well too. Except that it doesn't work like that. My colleagues might know my work self well but never have had the opportunity to meet my wife and vice versa. The 2 remain connected only through me; and then in different spheres of my life that may never coincide.

This idea is popular among engineers because it uses well-known algorithms to establish social proximity. It can be analysed, understood and relies on this assumption that is rarely questioned.

Admittedly, these are just suggestions and in no way are people forced into following total strangers; and these recommendations often do hit the target but they often fail too. And I believe that one of the causes is that recommendations based on the social graph are useful but only a part of the story.

Another part is the topic, the subjects about which a person writes. We write about what matters to us otherwise we wouldn't put the effort in. We write about things that are pertinent to our lives; irrelevant topics are not.

My argument is that relying on the social graph is good but to get closer to perfect recommendations, we need to use other ways to connect people, different types of information that can be used to find out how we relate to others, and therefore who is closely related to us as people.

One way we're doing this is at Roistr. Already, we're working on tying content together in a way that makes sense to people as a way to augment recommendations that can expand our social networks meaningfully.

11 December 2011

UX Research Principles I

I've spent a lot of time consulting for user research issues. My background and training have made research methods and statistics a real passion for me. I'm going to be writing a series of articles about how to undertake effective user research. This one is the first step: how to write an effective questions.
I like to think of myself as an experienced UX researcher. Being a psychologist, I've come across a lot of research methods that are not widely known but are very useful. This helps me to deal with problems better than if I didn't know them; and I've learned (the hard way!) how to use research methods to their best advantage.

But often in research, I've seen people diving straight in to decide upon the number of participants and research method. Being pro-active is commendable; but there is one important step that needs to be made before any of this other stuff can be done.

Set your questions.

It sounds obvious, so obvious that most people look puzzled when I say that we need to spend time nailing them down. But this comes from close on 15 years of research experience including a PhD and peer-reviewed publish articles detailing new research methods.

So why is it important to set the questions first? Well the questions determine everything else. They are the foundation of all research. With questions, you can then determine how they can be answered which implies what data you are going to collect and how to analyse it. When you have that, you can then decide upon a research method, then the target population, how to get your sample population, then your materials and then administer the lot. Finally, you can do the research.

What, step back a bit. All this comes from the questions?

Well yes. If you don't have the questions, how do you know what to measure? You cannot know what method you'll use or how many people you need. In that sequence, everything depends upon its preceding items. You cannot decide how many people to test unless you know what you're doing. A survey will need maybe 100 participants; user interviews maybe 6.

Some general pointers:

  • Take time over the questions and make sure they're good. If youve ever asked a statistician for advice, there's a good chance they'll ask you, "What's your research question?" or "What are you trying to find out about?"
  • Sit down with others and collaborate on formalising the research questions. Try to write them down like experimental hypotheses - something you can test.
  • Involving product managers, project managers, business owners, and other stakeholders can be a good for getting them to buy in to research. Just don't let it get bogged down with too much discussion; but ensure the questions are good.
  • Make a statement that summarises what the research is all about. This is good for explaining to people what is going on. The classic example mission statement is JFKs "by the end of the decade, we will put a man on the moon". A research statement might be something like, "What will make people use a social network site for cats?" If in doubt, always refer to this statement. If something isn't covered by it, then exclude it. This is why it's vital to work on making a good statement.
Once you have the questions established, you can work out how the answers to each question can be measured. More in the next article.

If you need any advice or help, leave a comment. If you have significant work on UX research that you think I can help with, you can contact me at alan@thoughtintodesign.com.

09 December 2011

Is a UX portfolio necessary?

Is a UX portfolio necessary? Should UX designers / researchers have a portfolio? IMHO, a UX portfolio is necessary but shouldn't be in an ideal world.

Some further reading links are below.

Currently, I've spent a lot of time putting together a web-based summary and a more complete print-based version to illustrate my process and the problems I've encountered. I've had to - recruiters have told me that it's expected and necessary for me to have a portfolio to be considered. The portfolio that got me interviews and jobs last year is now way too short.

But I also believe that a portfolio should not be necessary and there are X reasons why:

1) Documents cannot convey the true context of real-life work
2) A lot of UX thinking is hard to document thoroughly
3) People are after different levels of description
4) A lot of gatekeepers know little about UX
5) UX research & testing is hard to concisely communicate

Documents cannot convey the true context of real-life work

But from my 12 years experience in this field (and 16 years experience of web design), a portfolio only serves to gain immediate superficial attention. They rarely explain what the exact problems were solved and how they were challenged and met.

If a portfolio discussed a client and said, "This was the 5th time this project had been attempted: all past efforts had failed due to the clients' politics. I successfully pushed it through with 16 client stakeholders of a large, long-established multinational corporation most of whom cared most for building their empire rather than making the best quality product" it would sound bad particularly if the clients name was there despite being an excellent achievement in UX. Would I want to hire someone who bitches about their works' clients, even if they speak the truth? So this kind of critical information is hard to communicate.

A lot of UX thinking is hard to document thoroughly

I spend a lot of my work time thinking. I'll often go unapologetically to a coffee shop, sit down with a Moleskine and pencil and start jotting things down. Most of it's nonsense but I find even a change of situation to be conducive to creative thinking. I'd be short-changing the people who pay me money if I didn't do this.

What I'm trying to do is establish my own mental model (see Gentner & Stevens rather than Johnson-Laird and certainly not Young) about users' mental models - a supra-meta-mental model if you will! We all do it but to different degrees depending upon what information we have about users, what problems need to be solved and various other constraints.

There are artifacts from this thinking but they don't communicate well: Random sketches (with doodles inevitably thrown in) are the only really solid ones I have - they remain ideas until I can document them formally - and these documents don't show how I arrived at the solution, at least not without a long-winded (and frankly bizarre) explanation ("Well, I was reading a Mr Man book to my 3 year old daughter and one of the pictures of a house in a tree caught my attention. Somehow I put 2 and 2 together and realised that 'bit of information C' should go above 'bit of information A' and 'function B'." - this is really less than impressive even if it's honest).

Okay, we can write a corporate-friendly version ("I organised the UX team to ideate using concept-exploration and a semantic association task game") but this is nonsense and untrue.

People are after different levels of description

When reading about a problem, hirers are after different levels of explanation. It's a fact.

Some will read, "The problem was to design against a large set of business and legal constraints and I did this by paper wireframes, blah, blah, blah" and feel satisfied. After all, the candidate has shown that they have designed with business constraints in mind so that's good.

Personally (and there are others who feel the same), I feel this is superficial. What business and legal constraints? I want to know the detail before I can judge whether this work is good or not.

Example: When I worked for a bank, the business requirements were heavy: SOX compliance alone ensured that even short projects had 30 pages of constraints. The large ones - they were big documents. Designing against these was difficult because just taking the requirements in was an effort.

But I also cannot talk about the exact constraints because they are (or very well could be) corporate secrets. They're not for me to tell the outside world. This means that they have no place on a portfolio and hirers like myself would feel unsatisfied without this detail. This implies that portfolios are not the way to communicate UX ability.

To provide enough detail to make it worthwhile means including a lot of stuff that the hirer might not want to read. They're interest might be in navigating corporate politics; it might be in hammering through as good a design as possible against staid stakeholders; it might be whether they used ; or it might be 'are they easy to get on with?' Satisfying all information requirements will leave most overloaded. Not satisfying them results in meaningless communication.

Either the description is too long or there's just not enough detail.

A lot of gatekeepers know little about UX

Even a few people actually within UX don't know much about what UX really is.

But a lot of gatekeepers (HR, recruiters, creative background people) don't know much about what UX really is. It's not about graphic design; it's not about development or coding; it's not about business requirements (though all of these play a role). What differentiates UX from every other form of design is people:
knowing and finding out about how people think and behave and synthesising a solution that incorporates those user requirements.

It's why the word 'user' is in 'user experience'. If your work has no touch-points with users, then it's not UX.

Sadly, I'm encountering increasing numbers of people who just don't seem to realise this. Example: I was asked what my UX background was recently: "Are you from a design or development background?" The answer was neither: I'm a psychologist (though I can do limited graphic design and I can program to a surprising level - roistr.com is all my own work including the engine that drives it; and I wrote SalStat, a statistics program with a GUI back in the early 2000s including a lot of statistical tests - Mmmm, linear algebra!).

UX research & testing is hard to concisely communicate

I've done a lot of UX research and testing. My PhD is all research and even simple findings can be very hard to communicate to an expert audience never mind a naive one. Yeah it's our job but the research I do tends to be on a big scale. One I did recently featured something like 30-odd graphs.

However, a portfolio is a poor place to discuss this. This is because I cannot communicate the detail without releasing some very important corporate secrets. I can give you an anonymised version but it takes away all context and communicates nothing useful, at least nothing I'd be happy with.

Usability testing is similar. How can I communicate 10 hours of interviews and subsequent content analysis on the transcriptions? I'm good enough at my job to actually know what content analysis is and how to do it effectively (a rare skill in UX). But it's very challenging to communicate this: without context or detail, it's meaningless; with context and detail, it's breaking confidentiality. Besides, how does a hirer know that the work is of high quality? Very few in UX know anything about research anyway so there's little feedback coming through. I feel fairly confident in my work because I've been peer-reviewed and published and through a viva with a former Math Olympian (Alan Dix) and consultant to NASA (Andrew Howes). But few people from without a research background have had this training.


We need portfolios in order to get work. If we don't have them, jobs will go to those that do, simple as. It's not ideal.

But I would just be grateful if hirers could question the validity of basing decisions on portfolios; and also be aware of their own assumptions or even better, challenge them. Best would be to challenge themselves: being employed in UX doesn't qualify anyone as an expert.

I'm currently available for hire as a UX designer / researcher.

Now some links with discussions: