User Research Should Give You Bad News

“If you’ve been involved in user research that shredded all your carefully-made designs and delivered a gut punch that left you reeling for 24 hours, you should be proud. That’s the best kind of user research. Don’t be ashamed – bad news is opportunity knocking. If you’ve been involved in user research that didn’t hurt at all, then I guarantee you did it wrong. A researcher who is keen to please the design team is useless.”

 

The Thing That Makes User Research Unique

 

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The Liberal Arts Road to Digital Science

I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life (read: what kind of job I wanted) when I graduated from high school. I was interested in communications, history, philosophy and logic, and the Great Books program at St. John’s College in Maryland was the perfect fit for someone who couldn’t name a job they wanted, but could talk for hours about things in the world that she wanted to understand. While there, I developed two critical skills: the ability to communicate clearly and solve complex problems. I learned these skills not by taking exams and taking notes in lectures, but by demonstrating work to my peers, discussing great texts in a group setting, and by defending my theories in oral examinations. Learn more about the program at St. John’s College, which focuses on language, science, mathematics and music.

 

After college, I continued to law school believing that my natural curiosity about language, logic and knowledge systems would be fulfilled with a more rigorous study of societal law. I continued to develop a passion for making the complex simple. Reading cases and finding how a vast library of information related to itself was inspiring. As was the case at St. John’s,  writing and research were significant components of my studies, but I missed the creative outlet. I was in a silo, and slowly realizing that although I enjoyed my studies, I didn’t want to be an attorney. Meanwhile, but I started making extra money building WordPress sites for peers and creating my own digital libraries for study. The digital publishing world was exploding in 2001, and I stepped in at exactly the right time.

 

In the digital world, everything I had ever been interested in — language, science, politics, philosophy, logic — was present and larger than life. As I built and managed things for my friends, and then clients, I realized that the skills I’d acquired in school had equipped me to explain what digital solutions they needed and build those systems for them.  My education seemed a million miles away from the web in so many ways, but as I continued to develop my skill set, I realized nothing could  be further from the truth. I was amazed and inspired by the web: it was the most sophisticated communication tool I’d ever encountered, and it could become anything a user needed it to be. You just had to know how to organize it.

 

Learning to organize it came naturally to me. After all, the very first thing I studied in college was Euclid’s Elements.

 

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Freshman year, we read the Elements, learned the arguments, and came to class prepared to demonstrate them to the class. This meant translating from the Greek, drawing the axioms and postulates, following the argument, being ready to explain every step if questioned, and honestly, truly, completely being prepared to call the demonstration a “proof”. That’s not a small deal. Mostly because anyone in the room could interject to challenge a step or ask me to say more about an assumption I’d made.

 

Euclid named his geometrical treatise Elements. For him, mathematics was the study of data: tiny pieces of information gathered together to create larger knowledge systems. Sound familiar? Today, we talk about modular, atomic elements in the digital space, building information systems that solve problems and create joy for users. When a student studies human-computer relationships, they’re both observing and designing the data systems that enable digital communications.

 

As scientists, we’re creating their own postulates testing hypotheses. Just like Euclid, we’re discovering new ways of documenting their work to best communicate the method to others. Our field is incredibly scientific: a digital interaction system must look good, but beneath that surface appeal is a complex data system that contains research, axioms, observation and inherited knowledge. Its the combination of creative design and complex information systems that enables us to build groundbreaking tools, and this balance between logic and vision is the key.