To be continued

Photo by Reuben Juarez on Unsplash

Tools v Principles

On my training courses, I notice that people new to UX research tend to view the field as a collection of tools, like personas, user journey mapping and paper prototyping. There's a perception that they need to master these tools and implement them on projects to be user centred.

The problem with this way of looking at UX research is that the tools become an end in themselves. A good example comes from the world of personas. I've argued before that creating personas should never be your goal—understanding users' needs, goals and motivations should be your goal. It's about the research, not about the artefact. But because personas (or more accurately, personas done badly) are often criticised, this can make it hard to argue for the time needed to carry out field research. This is despite the fact that your new project may be crying out for ethnographic data to inform early decision making.

In truth, we don't need tools to encourage the development team to be more user centred. We need principles. What distinguishes more experienced practitioners is that they place principles above tools. Working from a core set of principles helps the more experienced researcher know when to stand their ground, when to relent, and when to swap out one tool for another.

One example of a set of user centred design principles comes from ISO 9241-210:

  • The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments.
  • Users are involved throughout design and development.
  • The design is driven and refined by user-centred evaluation.
  • The process is iterative.
  • The design addresses the whole user experience.
  • The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.

A thorough set of principles—but I sometimes wonder if there is one missing.

Note that these principles do not provide guidance on how to communicate the results of UX research to the development team. As a consequence, I'm tempted to add a seventh principle of user centred design:

  • Thou shalt engage the development team in UX research.

Engaging the development team in UX research

UX research has more than a passing resemblance to storytelling. A storyteller might write a book, create a stage play, or make a movie. The question the storyteller asks is, "Which tool will help me tell the story in the most engaging way?"

UX researchers are storytellers too. Our job is to tell the story of our research and of our users, their behaviours and day-to-day activities in the most compelling manner. The metaphor of storytelling makes it clear we need to identify characters and collect their stories before we can pass them on. In other words, we need to visit users, understand their lives, and identify their needs and their abilities. Once we have collected the data from our primary sources, we can decide on the best way to tell the story.

Principles first, tool second.

How UX researchers tell stories

Some of the main ways that UX researchers tell stories about their users and their needs are:

  • Empathy Maps: When researching the meaningful activity that our product is meant to support, what do users say? What are their behaviours? What might they be thinking? How do they feel?
  • Persona: Use a name and an image to help people empathise with this group of users. Include a description of common behaviours and this user group's needs and goals.
  • Photo-ethnographies: Share stories of your users' environments through photographs. Combine wide shots (e.g. of a room), with medium shots (e.g. the user carrying out an activity) and close up shots (e.g. of the app on a phone).
  • Storyboard: A frame-by-frame representation of the user's workflow when interacting with a product or service. Commonly represented as a comic, UX researchers can use storyboards to describe both the current experience and how the future experience is envisioned.
  • Scenarios: Perhaps the easiest to compare with a traditional story, scenarios are narrative descriptions of a user attempting to complete a goal. These stories can describe the current experience — "As Is" scenarios — or the way the experience could be re-designed — "Future" scenarios.
  • User stories: Borrowed from Scrum, UX researchers can use the format of user stories ("As a user role… I want to… so that I can") to tell a short story about the user's task within a context.
  • User journey map: A graphic that allows you to tell the story of the user experience from the beginning of a process to the end.
  • Concept video: Create an inspirational movie showing the story of how your users will interact with the product in the future.

There are many other tools that UX researchers use to tell the story of their user research, including swimlanes, mental model diagrams, and case studies. More tools but with the same goal: to tell the story in our data.

How might we further explore this metaphor? What other storytelling techniques could UX researchers adopt? Perhaps creating a musical or a stage play might be a bridge too far for most development teams but at the very least it may help us to think principles first, rather than tool first.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher. If you like his articles, you might enjoy his free online user experience course.



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This article is tagged ethnography, guidelines, ISO 9241, tools.


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David Travis Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher.

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