Recap of UXPA 2016: Let's Go Where the Users Are

The 2016 edition of the User Experience Professionals Association conference was held last week in sunny Seattle! (And, I’m not being a jerk, it was sunny.) My longtime friend and colleague Alex Proaps and I were fortunate to have two research posters accepted to the conference this year. So, for the first time since UXPA 2013 in Washington DC, Alex and I joined this beautiful international community of UXers who understand (and preach!) the value of putting humans first.

Our posters were Visual Perception and Product Design, and User Experience Design of Virtual Training Environments. I called this the Psych Corner.

Our posters were Visual Perception and Product Design, and User Experience Design of Virtual Training Environments. I called this the Psych Corner.

Something that stood out to me during this year’s meeting was a lot of mentions of the importance of ethnography as a UX research method.

Susan Dray, the original “Dr. Dray” (and she spits rap verses pretty well, thank you very much) was awarded a UXPA Lifetime Achievement honor for, among other things, pioneering ethnographic UX research around the world. (She's even a Fulbright Scholar, for which she spent time in Panama.) Anyone who knows her agrees that she has a special way of supporting everyone. She's always giving gifts and saying genuine, kind things. A special interview with her at UXPA revealed many stories about how she integrated with other cultures, built real friendships, and learned about others' daily lives.

We should all strive to be more like Susan, personally and professionally. In the panel for UX: Past, Present, and Future, Whitney Quesenbery brought up two hopes for the future of UX. The first is that we should be a less homogenous group. Although UX sees a lot of gender diversity (yay!), we are still mostly white, mostly from a similar class, and mostly from the Western world. Second, Whitney hopes that we spend more time getting our hands dirty and gathering insight by spending time with people in their own environments. Again, striking an ethnography chord, we need to make that effort to go where people are, listen to what their lives are like, and synthesize this information into meaningful solutions. Why invite them to our offices or labs, an artificial, strange environment? In the same panel, Tom Tullis brought up a good point -- do we even need usability labs anymore? Between remote testing capabilities and an apparent push toward more social science research, studies in usability labs might soon be a thing of the past. 

Hello again, Space Needle!

Hello again, Space Needle!

Controlled, experimental studies have their place, but they can't necessarily stand on their own. Yin and yang. Social scientists are pretty good at covering all our bases.

A lot of my research has been experimental, but I conducted my first ethnography “study” for an Introductory Sociology assignment in high school. (I observed shoppers in Dick’s Sporting Goods. Riveting stuff!)

And now, especially considering I'll never be "that kind of doctor," I’ve spent a fair amount of time in operating rooms. (It's not a task for the squeamish, which I am, but still preferable to hanging out with cadavers, which I’ve done.) We researchers went for a fly-on-the-wall vibe, observing the interactions among surgeons and nurses to figure out why certain mistakes happen. We also conducted interviews. We also created checklists. We also compared timestamps for in-surgery events. This was all useful, but the most valuable insights came from chatting with surgical staff over lunch in the hospital cafeteria.

If we had stopped at surveys, we would have gotten nowhere. If we had conducted a focus group, we would have learned nothing. Why is there a tendency to treat UX research as any less important than other research? It takes more effort to dig deeper, but if you aren't getting the right answers anyway, you're wasting your time and money.

Image via Tom Tullis

Image via Tom Tullis

Leaving a place like the UXPA conference is a little sad, because it means leaving this bubble, but also a wonderful feeling. It's such a great source of inspiration to spend a few days among others who are fighting this fight, asking the hard questions, and making a real difference.

- Becca (@becca_kennedy)