2007 has witnessed the continued maturity of user research practices in product design/development organizations. As this continues, we look to 2008 and key areas of growth and change in user research technologies and methodologies. What many of these themes have in common reflects a shift from how to conduct research, to how to manage all of the research findings and results – clearly a positive trend and a nice problem to have. Stay tuned into 2008 as these themes are tracked in further detail.
Even a casual reader of this web log will have observed the ever-growing options in data gathering technologies available for a variety of research applications. For 2008, the themes in technology are diverse – from high definition video to a new resource of anthropometric head measurements of the Chinese population. But the more compelling tools address needs in organizing and analyzing qualitative data:
- High Definition (HD) Video- HD video cameras are rising in popularity while falling in price. Higher resolution video means larger file sizes and typically more time for video editing and file management. On the other hand, greater visual clarity can be extremely valuable for studying fine motor control tasks, small control/interface element usage and visually-rich environments. Surgical observation and consumer electronics usability are two applicable areas for HD video.
- International Anthropometric References – Much of the reference anthropometric data used to guide designs is based on the body dimensions European and North American populations, limiting applicability and, ultimately fit, to a broader user population. The availability of three-dimensional scanning technology, while still time-consuming and expensive, is driving the inclusion of additional populations. Size China is a program to create the first-ever digital database of Chinese head and face shapes for helmets, sunglasses and surgical masks. Such resources will provide a richer starting point for guiding form and size in product designs, but of course are not a replacement for fit testing with real participants.
- Qualitative Data Management Software – As research capabilities mature, organizations will deal with a new set of challenges around handling larger volumes of research data. Research teams will struggle with organizing, presenting and efficiently re-using findings across projects. With that “embarrassment of riches, there is a need for techniques and tools that support research data management. For example, QSR Internationals’s forthcoming NVivo 8 provides a structure for entering, tagging and querying various forms of multimedia, qualitative data across multiple projects. These types of tools will enable more effective collaboration amongst both localized and geographically distributed researchers, and can provide a centralized repository for observational data.
- Qualitative Data Analysis Software – The value of well-conducted research is extremely limited if it is not easily organized for effective communication. It is especially challenging to organize, analyze and interpret qualitative data such as user interview transcripts and observational field notes. Following many years of adapting general purpose software and technology, we now have access to a variety of software and hardware tools to support planning, collection, analysis and sharing of research data. Several new technologies can support unstructured data analysis in various ways including searching speech via text and syntactically mapping information. For example, IBM’s Many Eyes application visualizes text in a tree-like branching structure to enable more efficient analysis and data mining.
Design research methods will continue to adapt for studying the wider range of user experiences, beyond the primary product. Frameworks and techniques for mapping out user touch points will assist research planning, which will become specialized to particular domains (e.g. medical vs. consumer). Threading across all of this is the need for guidelines for effective research communication and presentation:
- Comparative Ethnography - While many organizations are using ethnographic observation to understand end-user perspectives and stimulate innovative thinking, such research is frequently focused on a limited set of tasks and users. But a growing trend is to use ethnographic methodology to identify differences between contexts. For example, in a study of automobile driving behavior, Bresslergroup’s research plan not only focused on the in-car driving experience, but studied related, non-driving activities. Observing how comparable tasks (e.g. planning a route, choosing music to enjoy) are conducted in disparate contexts (in this case, in car vs. in home) provides unique insights to inform creative solutions.
- Service Design - Beyond the “total product lifecycle” approach, organizations will need to understand where they fit within the range of loosely tied user experiences beyond the product itself. For example, medical implant designers should expand user research beyond surgery to understand the touch points that potential patients, caregivers and healthcare providers utilize to make treatment decisions, prepare for surgery, and deal with recovery and beyond. The emerging discipline of service design provides a framework for understanding how multiple types of providers and users interact across the various products, interfaces and environments where interactions and decisions occur.
- Domain-Specific Research Methods – Although research practices can vary among domains (e.g. medical, consumer, industrial), core methods remain consistent. But as research teams mature, there is a movement towards industry-specific user research and design techniques. For example, in appliance design, usability testing with high-fidelity simulations is frequently necessary to elicit reliable performance feedback from consumers. By contrast, healthcare professionals are typically more capable of responding to lower-fidelity prototypes, partly attributable to their professional problem-solving processes.
- Presenting Design Research – Typically, product development organizations can effectively present and communicate their work and capabilities in design and engineering. But even when products are backed by quality user research, teams may struggle with effectively communicating its influence on product design. Similarly, organizations have difficulty evaluating the research capabilities of potential employees. The Industrial Designers Society of Americas (IDSA) is leading the way in developing guidelines for design research presentations, starting with the organization of design research portfolio workshop & review at the Northeast District conference this April in Philadelphia.