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Serena Dorrestijn on doing proper UX research

September 15, 2017

Serena Dorrestijn on the importance of doing proper UX research

We recently got an interesting answer to one of our tweets from Serena Dorrestijn, UX designer and researcher from the Netherlands. She found that she has to explain the price of not doing a proper UX research to people many, many times. I asked her for an interview so that we could explore this "mantra" further.

Matthias Bohlen: Hi Serena, thanks so much for taking the time for the interview here! Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your work.

Serena Dorrestijn: Hi! Thanks for having me! Talking about subjects that I am passionate about is never a chore ;). As introduced, my name is Serena Dorrestijn. I am a mid-twenties psychologist gone UX designer/researcher, born and raised in the Netherlands. I studied psychology at the University of Twente where I came into contact with the field of Human Factors & Engineering Psychology. The way our brains process information and how we can support people in demanding situations with good research and system's design was an eye-opener for me. After my masters, I joined the Professional Doctorate in Engineering program User System Interaction in Eindhoven where I was teamed up with great developers, designers, and psychologists from all over the world and was given the challenge to learn and develop into UX professionals together.

Currently, I am working at Bright Cape in the Netherlands. A firm that specializes in data consultancy. I came in as the first UX designer and have been given the challenge to set up a new department that is responsible for delivering the best experiences through our solutions to our clients (B2B) but also our the end users of our products (B2C). My belief that UX should be data-driven, producing quantified data next to qualitative data is confirmed here every week (although, it might be a self-fulfilling prophecy when shaping it yourself ;) ).

Matthias: On Twitter, you recently commented on what happens when people do not do proper UX research. You said that you had to sum it up so many times that it kind of becomes a mantra. Can you give us some examples of what you had to explain to make people understand?

Serena: Well, the first thing I really had to learn is to watch out with what you think people know about UX, IT, and research in general. I have stepped on a few toes by assuming that clients knew less about the subjects than they did, but the even bigger mistake was overestimating the client and not seeing their bluff. You see, the client really didn't want to let on that they didn't know what I meant with certain research procedures, so they went along with it. Later in the process, this caused a lot of confusion on why we were executing certain methodologies and what the expected results could be.

I learned the best way to explain the added value of #UXresearchTweet this

But, I'm getting sidetracked. I had to give presentations, have lunch meetings with difficult stakeholders, numerous phone calls and at one point even wrote a quite irritating song about it (please don't bring this up again :P). I learned that the best way to explain the added value is to have a good presentation with case studies that really show what research changed. We have a great case study where we were under enormous time pressure to deliver a high-fi prototype. So against everything we believed in, we decided to test later and invest in the extra time needed to change it around. However, the two completely different prototypes next to each other because of the user research & extensive user testing afterward really showed the influence of research. If you then explain how much time you spend on each screen, you can see clients calculating the monetary gains next to the extra costs of research ;).

For me, the most important point to get across is that no person is the same and that while we don't have to cater to everyone's needs (really not a reachable goal) it really makes a difference what group you focus on.

Without #UXresearch, we could have made disastrous mistakes.Tweet this

For example, I worked on a project where we designed for Urban Search & Rescue operators. These guys are in such difficult situations, without researching their cognitive workload, their stress levels, their most important knowledge objects that the system needed to support, we could have made disastrous mistakes resulting in missing a surviving missing person. Missing the fact that they wear gloves would have been very stupid if we wanted to design for tablets. Making the system slow or inconsistent could result in loss of focus, situation awareness and concentration that could also have big consequences. Of course, not all projects will take place under such circumstances, but I found that having a great example that people can relate to really helps your story.

Matthias: How did UX research look like in your projects? What were the typical things people did, and could there have been additional steps that you would have recommended them to do?

Serena: I have done a few projects that were really on the border of cognitive research and UX design, so in these projects, we investigated cognitive workload, performed task analysis, investigated their distributed situation awareness and mapped knowledge objects that people need to keep active in their working memory in order to perform certain tasks. These methods will only be used in a select number of cases, but I really recommend adding a (cognitive) psychologist to your UX team for the more complicated projects/environments.

The other UX projects often have a variation of the following:
Stakeholder analysis, benchmarking, branchmarking, literature review, existing work within our network, interviews with subject matter experts, interviews with stakeholders. When less information is available about a certain target group, we're using crowdsourcing platforms to distribute interviews.

The methods and depth used in the first research phase to me really depend on our design statement. Other methods we often use are card sorting (also not only in web development or e-commerce), observing, fly on the wall, conceptual inquiries, and the more traditional methods of usability testing with task performance and tracking of mouse and eye (if possible).

Branchmarking means learning from worlds or domains related to your own.Tweet this

Matthias: Oops, never heard of branchmarking before, what is it?

Serena: I don't remember where I first encountered branchmarking. I think it was a colleague at the PDEng that introduced me to it. Branchmarking means learning from related worlds or domains to your own. For example other branches or sciences. Branchmarking focuses on looking for best practices in other fields and seeing if you can innovate by implementing them into your own. I think a good example could be the interaction that economics and psychology have had in the last decades. To me, it really adds value. With benchmarking you focus on what other companies (similar to you) are doing. Sometimes that doesn't inspire you to innovate, but to improve upon their work and techniques. Looking for new combinations can really help deliver added value to clients.

Matthias: When the user research sessions were done, what did you and your teammates do so that you could make sense of the findings, get real insights and derive actionable design changes from them? Could you give us some examples of what happened?

Serena: Affinity mapping, impact & effort matrixes, 100$ test, forced ranking, landscape plotting and empathy mapping. But the most used method for us remains affinity mapping and converting a lot of insights into categories for use in that manner. If in doubt on what ideas or directions to go in, I'm a fan of dot voting and forced ranking.

Matthias: How did you and your teammates feel about the sense-making activity? Is it fun or pain?

Serena: In general, it has been a lot of fun. However, the difficulties in these sense-making activities lie in maintaining the energy of the team and creating a consensus on the subject that you're making sense of.

Difficulties in sense-making activities lie in maintaining team energy and creating consensus.Tweet this

One of the dynamics that really influence the outcome is the personalities and group dynamics that you have in the room. A good understanding of who is on your team and how people prefer to make decisions. For example, the MBTI personality test in a group workshop has really helped us in understanding each other preferences thereby speeding up the process and making it more enjoyable. Another solution can be to have someone from another team as an independent workshop facilitator (for really big projects or when dealing with a lot of people).

Q: Do you do #UX sense-making ‘heads down’ or ‘heads up’? A: We do both!Tweet this

Matthias: Do you do "heads down" sense-making before you go "heads up" sense-making with the entire team? I mean: Do you process your findings in quietude, alone at your desk, first? If so, what do you do there exactly?

Serena: Both! For me, it depends on the group dynamics how we start the sense-making session. If you have a group where the distribution of power is a bit off (for example, 2 managers and 2 juniors) then often the juniors will wait with voicing their ideas or will not voice them at all. Another situation could be when you have one very talkative person in the group and someone who needs a bit quieter and consolidation time to think.

In these cases, we often use brainwriting or mind mapping as a method to first do "heads down" sense-making before taking the results into the group and making it "heads up". (Also a tip for the discovery phase of a project: 1-minute brainwriting and passing the paper to the next team member to iterate upon can create amazing concepts!).

As described before, the challenge in sense-making lies in creating the best vibe and most stimulating atmosphere for your team consolidate all information and see the best solutions. Using different methodologies can help achieve this vibe.

Matthias: What are your plans, now, for doing UX work during the next 12 months?

Serena: Difficult question. Right now my job is very dynamic and I am currently very busy with making contacts for new assignments, looking for great people to join the team and developing methodologies and material that we can use. I think that in a few months I'll pick up more UX research related work again next to this since that really is what makes me tick. The way people look at things and how we reason about our world is so interesting, I don't think I can stay away from that for too long.

Matthias: Serena, thanks for joining us today!

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