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Three Ways to Stay Lean and Avoid the UX Bubble

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This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.

The challenges presented by the global economic recession have served to motivate those of us in the field of User Experience to find more inventive approaches as an industry. Morgan McKeagney, Managing Director of iQ Content (Ireland), touched on this topic in a talk titled The End of Hype, BS & Bling: UX Strategy in the Age of Austerity, at the UX Masterclass in Chicago.  Drawing an analogy to the global economic crisis, he proposed that to stay relevant, we must stay lean; we must stay strategic and focused on value. This is an assertion that is hard to fault; thoughtful business practices are always advisable, regardless of the state of the economy. A concern he had, though, is the idea that rapidly growing rhetoric on the topic of UX may be an indication of an impending bubble – that through too much talk and too little action we are becoming increasingly self-obsessed and out of touch with the needs of users and clients. Thus, it is imperative to examine ways in which user experience professionals can avoid these pitfalls and, in doing so, help avoid a possible UX “bubble.”

Refine objectives early

Solid research always starts with well-defined objectives. Thoughtfulness at the beginning of a project can make or break the overall success of a project as these decisions waterfall into the phases that follow. It is often the case that clients come to us with a general idea of what they hope to accomplish with research, but it is our job to examine those goals and develop them into achievable objectives.

Begin by identifying and investigating aspects which make or break the experience for the user. It is a noble goal to improve usability, but what does that equate to tangibly for the product or service? If you cannot envision being able to say with confidence that you have addressed the objective in a meaningful way, then it is too broad and should be reduced to a manageable and solvable component part. For example, let’s say you want your e-commerce shopping cart to be usable. This can mean several things: you want users to be able to purchase with few errors, you want a faster process, or one with a high level of satisfaction. Consider tradeoffs that are necessary when you take steps to address each issue. More descriptive text may reduce errors, but it may slow users down and cause frustration as they plod through the process. Seek an appropriate balance and establish measurable benchmarks for each criteria of interest.

Get out of your experimental design rut

Accept that the ways you have always done things are likely not best in every case. Unfortunately there is no formula for selecting the optimal way; every case is unique and requires careful consideration of possible approach given the phase of development, available time and resources. The key is to think lean: is this a case for 100 opinions or six observations?

In the Gizmodo article How Nasa Solved a $100 Million Dollar Problem For Five Bucks, Editor Brent Rose discusses an example which illustrates this point well. While working on the Ares I rocket, NASA engineers encountered a problem. Strong vibrations during launch made it impossible for astronauts to read cockpit displays. After many failed attempts to use complex spring and motor systems to counteract the issue, an elegant solution was found. By implementing an idea to strobe the display in synchrony with the vibrations, combined with a couple of cheap accelerometers to take the measurements, a significant and expensive hurdle was overcome. Think outside of the box when it comes to experimental design and you will be surprised by the results. As an added benefit, a greater diversity of methods employed will open up new avenues of lean and creative approaches in the future.

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Don’t be afraid to share

In his talk, McKeagney showed a graph which depicts the sudden inflation of the term “user experience” in conference tags over the last five years. This graph supports his assertion that interest in the topic of user experience has exploded as of late. With this growth there is undoubtedly greater risk of an echo chamber effect within the industry. However, the latter is avoidable by utilizing these opportunities to pursue more efficient and effective methods. The last word on user experience has not been spoken. Indeed, the moment we stop talking with each other and stop trying to advance and refine our methods is precisely when commoditization takes over and the bubble begins to inflate. Rapid innovation and knowledge sharing among practitioners are necessary to defeat this trend and should be encouraged. Talking to others in the industry, we are often surprised by the innovative approaches we have learned and been able to adapt to our own work. Similarly, we are thrilled to share tips and tricks that we have developed with others.

Take away: As an industry, lean, strategic and  value-focused must remain our mantra. However, in this pursuit, we must also be cautious not to disregard thoughtful advancement of our practices and our field in favor of an overly simple pragmatism.

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