November 2014

Want better answers to UX problems? Ask Better questions!

A fundamental principle held by many is: we shouldn’t build unless it’s informed by the user. We agree but …

Creating the best UX by listening exclusively to what your user say and by making the user the centre of the process sounds like a reasonable ideology but it has a little flaw…

The Problem with Accepted Wisdom.

There is a trap in accepting something just because that’s the way it’s always been done. It means we could become complacent. We end up ignoring crucial tacit insights about our users because we cling too tightly to the overt information the users volunteer.

Requirements are usually defined by an incremental mindset. We seek solutions based on our own previous experience rather than defining novel, new or innovative solutions to challenges..

Solutions can become overly specialized or so perfect for one particular user group, that they become less useful for everyone else. Often we end up with many features that end up over complicating products.

Luckily it’s not that complicated or technical, the solution sounds simple enough: we listen to our users while keeping an eye on the big picture. In practice this would mean Instead of asking questions purely about personas, we ask questions about how a product will be used in the real world. How these activities relate to the design and the context of the challenges the customer face.

An Activity Centred Design approach is a useful framework to start with. Mapping users’ activities and tasks we may notice ways to dramatically improve outcomes that the user could not envisage as they have no reference point for it.

Better questions, better results.

So how do we ask better questions? Well, we can look at activity systems – a collection of people and resources, playing by certain rules as a community to achieve something.
By looking at all these different elements and their relationship to each other, we gain a deeper understanding of a problem. Some examples could include:

  1. Tools and artefacts: what resources are available? What things are being used? How do they affect what actions can be taken?
  2. Participants: who are our users? How do they interact in this world?
  3. Rules and rituals: what rules govern this world? What things are taboo? What behaviour is expected?
  4. Community: what are the shared elements of social context?
  5. Division of labour: who does what? Is there a hierarchy? How is it organised?
  6. Objective: what’s the shared goal?
  7. Outcome: what has been achieved?

Designing solely for the participants, and not for the whole activity, leads us down the wrong path. So instead, we ask questions about all the elements of the system, and how they fit together and how they affect each other.

As we answer those questions, we make new connections. Ask even better questions and creating better solutions.

By changing our mindset from individuals (users) to activities, we’re more likely to ask better questions. Asking better questions can lead us to more meaningful answers.