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Generative UX Research: Build Products for People

Generative UX Research: Build Products for People

In a world where data rules, generative ux research tells the full story. The assumptions made from clinical methods and skimming data can lead to assumptions at best and failed businesses at worst. Generative research aims to understand the context of the situation, not just the issue at hand. In this way, generative research seeks to find and fix the root problem whereas assumptions without the human element provide a band-aid. With so much on the line, researchers in the space have found a solution in generative research through immersive methods such as digital ethnography, diary studies, domain-expert interviews, and focus groups. Through a participatory-design approach, researchers and designers can better grasp the gaps within the day-to-day lives of users, because they are working side-by-side with them. Before solving, researchers and designers need to discover the root issues, explore the problems with users, and actively listen to understand the impacts of these frustrations in their everyday lives.

People-First, Products Later

Scenarios based on data aren’t sufficient in evangelizing the need for a product; user stories coupled with data will however have a better chance of getting off the ground1. Time is money, so designers and researchers should be adopting a generative approach in the early ux design stages to uncover and understand problems as well as how these problems arise. Erickson exemplifies this notion when discussing emerging advanced technology at the time by telling a story about a daughter and father trying to figure out how to operate motion-detecting lights1. Conceived as cutting-edge and futuristic, the actual implementation of motion-detecting lights led to random ons and offs that made people chuckle at and roll their eyes rather than the omniscient design that researchers and designers had envisioned as being sleek and cinematic. Through stories and interviews, users, researchers, and designers can begin to explore the problem space together through in-depth interviews that seek to not only understand key frustrations but where these frustrations arise.  

Many companies dive into the solution-space, but the problem-space is where true innovation and solutions thrive. Traditional generative ux research can be difficult to undertake for two reasons:

  1. It is time-consuming.
  2. It can be difficult to recruit enough users.

Generative research is becoming easier, however. With companies dedicated to sorting out the minutiae like remote multimedia data collection and video analysis, researchers and designers can spend more time with users and gather deep insights quickly. Digital ethnography and diary studies are fundamental to companies striving to carve out their space in the market as solution providers for years to come. “Fundamentally, ethnography is about making the ordinary extraordinary and seeing things hidden in plain sight” – Siamack Salari, Founder of Ethos App.

When we act in the ux problem-space, the aim is uncovering, understanding, and learning more about the users and their daily frustrations. The key concept is understanding the purpose of their actions before analyzing their tasks and goals2. By seeking purpose, we are entering the stories of people and why they do what they do. According to Young and Mangalam, most research is being done in the solution space, which is fitting a company’s products to users rather than empathetic listening to provide products that meet their needs. With the first approach, there’s a misconception that a lot of time and money is saved, but these products or services are more likely to fail or fall out of favor due to a lack of engagement and adoption by users. If a product isn’t made with a user-first approach, it generally has a hard time being adopted into a user’s daily life.

Generative ux research gives companies the keen insight into exactly where, when, why and how products will be adopted, not just the what of the equation. For example, Young and Mangalam ran a study among people who had just recovered from an accident and were choosing insurance3. In their research they focused their attention first on the people recovering from accidents rather than on what insurance companies could provide at that time. Through this approach, they were able to understand that the true goal of users was preventing another accident rather than filing claims or filling out a form3. Once they had completed in-depth interviews that generated insights into the lives and inner worlds of these users, the researchers could then move into the solution-space by choosing problems to solve and integrating insights gained from user stories. Solutions generated solely in the solution space may have indicated the need for better online forms and a quicker way to make a claim. In the case of this example, the research team found that insurance companies could work with public safety groups by providing weather and traffic-related alerts to users making them aware of hazardous conditions 2. Not all solutions need to be slick and cutting edge to be adopted by users, the solutions simply need to make life easier.

Approaches & Purposes of Generative UX Research

With the generative approach, your research will provide an in-depth understanding of people, not products. Findings from this type of work will generate a greater understanding of the identities and lives of people that go beyond interactions with products and services. Getting to the core of their daily lives, generative research requires intent listening. At this point, the intent is not to provide anything, but to uncover what life looks and feels like as well as understand and empathize with “how they move toward a purpose”3.  

Common methods and tools used in generative research:

  • Diary Studies : Diary studies fall within the discovery and exploratory phases of generative ux research, and they provide insight into the longitudinal use of products. Through logs kept by users, researchers and designers not only get to understand how a product is integrated into a user’s daily life, but they get to understand their thoughts, feelings, and experiences over a period of interaction4.  
  • Remote Ethnographic Field Studies: Gaining empathy from ethnography is what most of today’s products are missing. To develop a solution that fits users, you have to know them. Ethnographic field studies are another discovery method to determine root issues users face in their daily life. Looking at interactions with technology does not make products great. Ethnographic field studies observe natural behavior through technology as well as the varied contextual uses.
  • Co-Creation/ Ideation: Designers and researchers must explore the problem space with users. A key tenant of User-Centered Design methodologies involves users early and often. Ideation workshops explore the problem area users face daily to determine possible solutions while working with a domain expert, the user. Ideation workshops create a sense of “cross-pollination” that involves the design team, stakeholders, and users to find congruent solutions5. This exploratory activity is interactive listening at work; researchers can ask questions and draw solutions directly from domain experts. Co-creation and ideation close the gaps that lie between users and products. 
  • Journey Maps: A visual report that details the customer experience. In a journey map, researchers can not only create a timeline of utilization, but show the emotional journey of product use: touchpoints, thoughts, feelings, challenges, frustrations, and actions4. Journey maps vary by case, so it is important to utilize discovery and evaluative methods before mapping out a user journey. Journey maps are not only used to prove a business case for creating or modifying a product, but journey maps also reflect that designers and researchers have listened to users.
  • Usability Tests: Beyond data lies the story of users, this evaluative method allows researchers and designers to understand the functionality of products and services. In this method of research, researchers set the tone and ensure users understand they aren’t being evaluated for how well they perform – rather this is a test on how the product/ service performs. Researchers can utilize Concurrent Think Aloud tests where the user thinks aloud, speaking, as they work through an assigned task as well as Retroactive Think Aloud Tests where the tester verbally repeats out loud their thinking after the fact, Concurrent Probing: researchers/moderators probe the tester with questions during the actual test, and Retrospective Probing: researchers/moderators ask the tester detailed questions after the fact. 

Overall, generative ux research deeply underscores the empathy that user experience and product design are founded upon. Generative research is the mainstay for companies seeking to innovate and compete in today’s market. Research of this kind may take more work, but it’s getting easier, and the value stands the tests of time as the finding elucidates key insights into purpose-driven reasoning and desires.