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Paradigm-shifting articles that changed how I view UX

Articles that will make you think more deeply


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Meghan Wenzel

a year ago | 9 min read

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Article originally posted in UX Collective.

UX is a dynamic and evolving field. In order to stay abreast of changing trends, new methodologies, and boundary pushing thinking, I regularly read articles by members of the UX community. These pieces are generally informative, illuminating, and practical, however, every so often an article really stands out and changes how I think about a topic. The
following six articles all got me thinking more deeply.

Reflecting on our field

Is UX still viable? The unintended consequences of user-centered design

This article digs deeper into the consequences of our “relentless focus” on the user, while disregarding everything else.

“A relentless focus by companies on serving the wants and needs of their
users can have dramatic unintended consequences for other people and
things — our communities, our places, and the environment.”

For example, Airbnb has focused on improving the travel experience of those using its platform, but this has come at the expense of renters, neighborhoods, and communities at large.

Instead, the author argues that businesses and their employees need to slow down
and explore the wider ramifications of their products and services.

“To fail to consider the wider impact of our design choices is a dereliction of duty.”

Producing negative externalities and relying on individuals, communities, and the environment to deal with them simply isn’t sustainable in today’s world. Instead as consumers, professionals, and leaders, we need to hold companies accountable for taking a more holistic and long-term approach to business.

“We have to consider what else might be affected by that service, and engage with our clients to consider the implications of what we build… A systems-based view of design is needed to give consideration to not just users, but everyone and everything else impacted by it — especially the social and environmental consequences. Instead of keeping any one thing at the center, we move in and out, changing resolution and bringing into focus users, other groups of people, societies, organisations, and the environment, on all scales from local to global.”

Read the full article here.

How might we be wrong?

As with any professional, researchers try to advocate for their work and convince others of its value and necessity. In this evangelizing mindset, we might not always stop to think about how our findings and insights might not be the most valid or representative. Particularly in the face of limited budgets, tight deadlines, and an amalgam of
stakeholders, researchers often do the best they can, balancing academic rigor with practical realism.

“User research gives us an understanding of our users so we can make informed decisions. I didn’t say the right decision, but informed decisions. It gives us a direction (or several) that is based off of our knowledge of our users.”

Research can provide valuable information to help us make more informed decisions, but it’s not a magic bullet. We have to acknowledge that research can provide skewed, biased, or even invalid findings, depending on the particular methodologies, participants, and data analysis performed.

Acknowledging this is the first step. In order to combat bias and uncover more valid findings, it can be helpful to step back and explicitly think about your research’s risks and
potential weaknesses. What are the most serious threats to your research? What are the most serious threats other people (colleagues, stakeholders, etc) might have? How could you best assess and mitigate these different threats, for yourself and others? How might others be able to help you?

The author also suggests a variety of other approaches, from conducting long term studies to listening to session recordings to having participants explicitly explain their thoughts and reasoning to investigating outliers and “undesirable” data to conducting multi-modal
research, such as combining qualitative interview feedback with quantitative usage analytics.

Read the full article here.

Foundational work

Beware the cut ’n’ paste persona

Personas are a popular topic within the field, and nearly everyone has an opinion. Recently I’ve seen a variety of articles moving beyond personas to create more accurate and actionable deliverables.

This article outlines the shortcomings of personas and suggests an alternative — “dynamic selves”. The authors argue that personas are popular because they make research “more relatable, more human”. However, they lack stories and fail to convey users’ actions and
reasoning. They represent people as static, abstract individuals away from their environment/context, and present “meaningless averages”.

Instead, they present “dynamic selves”, aiming to understand individuals in their various contexts. They suggest identifying target audiences, and conducting broad research to
understand their attitudes, reasoning, environments, interactions, and relationships. During analysis, you are able to represent each individual within multiple situations, no longer needed to develop an artificial character.

“Design needs simplification but not generalization. You have to look at the research elements that stand out: the sentences that captured your attention, the images that struck you, the sounds that linger. Portray those, use them to describe the person in their multiple contexts. Both insights and people come with a context; they cannot be cut from that
context because it would remove meaning…It’s high time for design to move away from fiction, and embrace reality — in its messy, surprising, and unquantifiable beauty — as our guide and inspiration.”

Read the full article here.

The “Goldilocks Experience” of developing a foundational research framework — finding a practice that’s “just right”

The author shares her learnings from developing foundational research to help Udemy develop a shared understanding of their various user groups’ needs and challenges. She notes that this foundational work helped the design and product teams develop a more strategic and holistic user experience and increase engagement and satisfaction. She explains how she combined personas, journey mapping, and jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) in
order to create a shared understanding but also actionable insights.

“This framework is rooted in the concept that: Attitudes shape situations, which in turn shape experiences… Personas influence JTBD, which subsequently influence a customer’s experiential journey with our product.”

They developed personas by combining market segmentation and qualitative interviews to understand students’ demographics and core beliefs around learning. Then JTBD provides insight as to what they’re trying to achieve in a particular situation. Finally, they layer on the customer journey. A person’s context, motivations, progress, and goals impact their expectations, needs, usage, which in turn impacts their success and overall enjoyment.

For example, imagine a product designer named Denise. She’s a motivated and curious life-long learner (persona). At work, she dedicates an hour or so each week to scan Udemy for new courses on the latest design tools to stay up-to-date and master her craft (JTBD). However, during COVID she was suddenly let go from her job (user journey). Trying to make the best of a tough situation, she looks to Udemy to help her reskill and potential move into VR and game design. However her mindset, usage, and context likely have changed, perhaps impacting her needs and overall experience with Udemy.

Read the full article here.

Building good products

Outcomes based roadmap

Developing a product strategy and roadmap is a challenging, yet highly important task. While many roadmaps are feature focused and driven, the author sagely argues we need to shift our thinking to focus on outcomes and impact.

Traditional features focused roadmaps often include a laundry list of features and tight deadlines. They typically fail to communicate the larger strategy and reasoning, which can demotivate and confuse the team. Instead, building an outcome-focused roadmap provides clear alignment and communication around what we’re trying to achieve and why. Outcomes are more open ended, and allow the team to draw on their expertise and creativity to develop novel solutions.

“We optimize for learning and allow the team to use their expertise which provides a sense of purpose and leads to a better product.”

Outcomes-based roadmaps provide more clarity around the team’s goals and help members prioritize and plan based on value. They provide alignment and empower
teams to “solve problems, rather than implement solutions”. Additionally, they create more space for user feedback, iteration, learning, and pivoting in order to best meet and outcome, instead of focusing in on a predetermined solution.

Read the full article here.

Beyond delight; the memorable experience framework

As businesses have evolved, functional UX is no longer a differentiator.
The stakes have been raised, and now users seek memorable and engaging
experiences.

“A memorable experience is a step above a delightful one. It enhances the sense of meaning, connection, and wellbeing in people. It’s not about the UI, but the user.”

These days, people are constantly learning and growing. They seek products and services to meet their needs and help them achieve their goals, from “learning a new language on Duolingo, fighting their anxiety with Headspace or becoming jogging legends on Strava.”

The author argues that the memorable experience framework supports this constant transformation and evolution.

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

The Memorable Experience Framework

Familiarity and novelty, clear goals, immediate feedback, incremental challenge, guidance, acknowledgement, support, impact, autonomy, and community are all elements of building memorable and engaging experiences.

“A memorable experience puts the user’s goals at the center of the experience. Using different dimensions of positive psychology, products can assist users in becoming who they aspire to be and win their hearts and minds.”

Read the full article here.

Innovation

How to Build an Invention Machine — 6 Lessons That Powered Amazon’s Success

Two former Amazonians, Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, wrote Working Backwards to explore the processes and principles that fueled Amazon’s success. Upon reflection, they share six key lessons they learned during their time at Amazon.

#1: Slow down to innovate
“More so than most companies, Amazon thinks about creating value for customers, focusing specifically on how they can create unique and distinct products. Many companies get tripped up and think about innovation as something where they need to come up with ideas, quickly get them out and test them, in the sort of agile method of iterating quickly.”

#2: Brainstorm around the customer’s needs, not your skill set
Carr explains how most companies focus on their skills and try to find business that leverages their existing strengths. Instead, Amazon focuses on customers’ unmet needs. For example, with Kindle they didn’t have strong hardware expertise. But they focused on making books more widely, cheaply, and easily accessible to people on the go.

“Design around customer obsession first and foremost — then you can seek out and develop the skills you need to get there.”

#3: Stay flexible on the details, but don’t let innovation become a part-time job
“Good ideas can get trapped inside big companies because they’re not staffed to succeed. The challenge at any established company is that the demands of your core business will always soak up all of the bandwidth of your leaders.”

To combat this, Amazon has single-threaded leaders, where a leader and team solely focus on one thing. This way they can dedicate the appropriate time, attention and resources to achieving their stated goal.

#4: Work backwards
Amazon starts with the core value a product or service will provide to customers. They have employees write press releases to clearly communicate ideas, assess market fit, and spur people to sufficiently dig into the details. These press releases also include a FAQ section to explore challenges and potential potholes early.

“If you can’t describe something that sounds compelling and that people really want and need in a one-page press release, then there’s no point in building it.”

#5: Intentions don’t work, mechanisms do
Amazon is highly focused on building a strong and coherent culture. Through their codified values and principles, they seek to actively shape and maintain their culture. They view challenges, slip ups, and utter failures as opportunities to learn and improve their processes.

“Most people are actually trying pretty darn hard, and they have good intentions. So when we ran into an issue or a problem, Bezos would always ask, ‘Do we have a mechanism in place so it doesn’t happen again? Because if this high-performing or well-intentioned person tripped up, there’s probably a process that we need to fix.’”

#6: Great operators dive into the details
Amazon focuses on the things within their control. Instead of focusing on revenue, profits, number of customers, and growth rates, they focus on lowering prices, reducing delivery time, increasing inventory breadth, and improving the customer experience.

“If you do the things you have control over right, it’s going to yield the desired result in your output metrics.”

Read the full article here.

Our field is constantly growing, improving, and evolving, and reading each others’ learnings, reflections, and thought pieces allows us to collectively reflect, discuss, and move our field forward. Reflecting on our field as a whole, better representing our users and their needs,
planning and developing better products, and continuing to innovate are all core problems UX professionals are trying to solve. I found these articles particularly insightful, and they changed how I approach designing and developing products.

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Created by

Meghan Wenzel

Lead User Researcher, Strategist, and Writer

As a User Researcher and Strategist, I help companies solve the right problems and build more relevant, efficient, and intuitive products. I started my UX career at a Fortune 500 company, and I've since helped established the research practice at three B2B startups. I'm currently a Senior User Researcher at Unqork, the leading enterprise no code platform.


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