UX Should be Field Work

Every UX producer I know spends most of their day in front of a computer, including myself. We’re spending our time researching, building prototypes, designing wireframes, reading research, theorizing and planning. And then the day comes… we run a user test. We build up for the big day. We’ve put out an ad, maybe hired a testing facility and equipment. We’ve focused our demographic and written multiple tests and goals. We setup our laser eye tracking and heat map software, and double-check our prototypes. Incentives are distributed. We field calls to our mobiles helping participants reach the test facility, or join the video conference the morning of.

We finally test the results of weeks or even months of hard research and design work. But is this how it should be?

Our 80/20

We have standards just like any other industry. We know that speakers of Roman languages are better served with a top-down, left-to-right heat map, and most others with a bottom-up, or right-to-left map. This – and many others – are the ‘known standards’ of our practice, and we implement them consistently. Almost without thinking. This is our 20%.

They will probably never change, but they’re also just the tip of the iceberg into the realm of unknowns – which is where it gets tricky – and this is the realm in which UX should become field work. It’s that 80% where it’s too easy to sit at our desks and Google for answers, studies or opinions. But that’s what most of us do.

Let’s get Logical

If you were to render down the role of almost every UX discipline, it should come down to this one thing: that our job is to make the thing perfectly intuitive to a given human. To render the manual unnecessary. Our current practice of Googling, researching or internally prototyping in order to address the 80% is like doing everything we can think of to describe the taste of a Klondike bar except going out and buying one to taste it ourselves.

Our currency is human behavior. Human behavior is carried out solely by humans. With the way we approach things, you might expect there to be a distinct lack of population like some post-apocalyptic use case. Yet, we have no lack of humans, and still we avoid the very thing that could answer our unknowns in an instant; human testing. I will admit that this is an easier conclusion to draw as a nomadic worker, and that ungluing butts from office chairs and stand-up desks is more socially difficult… but it’s a stigma that must be overcome if we are to be effective. The guesswork and bloated findings has to stop if we’re going to be efficient.

In Real Life

So what does UX Field Work look like? Well, it’s not being at a desk for 8 hours. It’s not running a controlled user test once a month. It’s not even calling up a UX buddy for an opinion. It’s getting off our asses, out of the office and out of the rigid academic mindset of user research. It’s testing early, often and iteratively. It’s having incentives on your person at any given time. It’s being able to identify your demographic instinctually.

The last ‘user test’ I ran was at Starbucks. I had built a prototype and wondered about some of the IA decisions I had made. I asked the man across from me at our table if he would like to “do a 5-minute application test for UNICEF”. He happily obliged as I began instruction and setting the scene. “Do you have kids?” I asked. “Yes, two, in their early teens.” Close enough, I thought, and proceeded. “It’s late Christmas morning and everyone has unwrapped their gifts. You bought each of your girls a UNICEF Kid Power Band, as well as one for yourself.” (I lift my sleeve to show him my Kid Power Band.) “Things have settled down… You’re sitting on the sofa with a fresh cup of coffee watching the girls play with their gifts and you think let’s setup our Kid Power Bands. You downloaded the app and launched it. Go ahead, get setup.” I instructed.

I handed him my iPhone, prepped with a prototype of the Kid Power app. What commenced was a 20-minute “talk-out-loud” session of interactive feedback, occasional hand-holding and answering questions. I thanked James for his time and started getting up… “Let me get you a Starbucks Card for your time.” I offered. “No, I’m happy to donate my time for a project that helps kids.” Done, (for the win).

I could have easily spent the rest of that day researching answers to my IA question or playing with other iterations, but instead I invested 20 minutes into an ad-hoc test that gave me far more real and accurate information from a real user. I didn’t have to put an ad out or even have incentives on me (in this case). James doesn’t represent 100% of my target demographic, but he covered the important ‘parent’ aspect quite well.

Learning This

So did I spend the rest of the day doing more ad-hoc research? No. I played with more design iterations based on his feedback, because it felt right to capture the moment while it was fresh in my head. Looking back, what I should have done is put a time limit on that – say an hour – before asking for participation from someone else, perhaps someone who might help fill out my demographic.

As someone guilty of falling into the endless rabbit-hole of research, I want to learn how to distinguish between times I’m grasping at the air, and times I should be (essentially) getting an opinion from a real user. In my experience, that time of real user testing and feedback is immeasurably more dense with usable data than hours upon hours researching alone online.

Implementing Against Culture

I’ve done my share of time at UX groups, in offices, and I have no dreams of how easy it might be. Nowadays, I’m almost always working around people (who I don’t know) because I don’t work in an office, so a practice like this requires little more than a change to my thinking. But for those in an office, I encourage you to explore this with your colleagues and see if you can come up with, perhaps, a set time every day (yes, every day) to be “out-and-about” in order to afford yourself opportunities like this more often… Even if you’re at the office and simply identify the need for some ad-hoc testing, try to carve out the space to get out – right then and there – and make it happen.

Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that ad-hoc testing should replace anything else you’re already doing, but instead, the opportunity for it should be integrated into a workday. As integration happens, you’ll become more aware of how it affects your needs for more organized, ‘deliverable’ testing. Then, with that information, adjust your amount of user testing accordingly.

We are Writing History

User Experience Design is one of the most prolific roles that can be filled in times like this. We should treat it with that kind of reverence. At the end of the day, we’re designing the applications that will enable thousands to donate to disaster relief, or feed starving children, or to vote. It’s easy to detach our mindsets from our end-goals of a user accomplishing a task. It’s easy to focus on the journey instead of the destination, but make no mistake – we are producers who enable action. Our role exists to serve those who are making a difference, and to help them make more of a difference. Our work is changing the world, and we are willing to change ourselves into more effective and efficient servants of that work.