User Research Friday

I ventured out of the office last Friday, to join Bolt Peters and friends for User Research Friday at Mighty in San Francisco. Billed as “Emergent User Research Methods. And Drinks” URF08 was attended by about 150 professionals and students interested in the topic of user research. During his opening remarks, Nate Bolt talked about the benefits of user research, and remarked that “good ideas don’t just come from the guys in the black turtlenecks.” Nate’s comment got me thinking, what are the strengths and frustrations of the user research community, and how can interaction designers get the most benefit from user research techniques?

The userati: Dan Saffer, Indi Young, Cyd Harrell and Nate BoltIn his talk “Research and Design: Ships in the Night?“ Steve Portigal posed the questions “can you do research without design?” and “can you do design without research?” He shared some pitfalls of design without research and made his point that unless you’re extremely lucky, user research is critical for product innovation. Steve also talked about the timing of research. Should it be before or after design? Ideally, Steve recommends research and design, as a loop, done continuously.

Indi Young told us “How Mental Models Helped Teams Do What They Dreamed.” She said user research is important because it “helps us know the people we design for personally, rather than in the abstract.” Indi then provided an example of how it’s useful to think about user segments by behavior rather than by demographics. Thinking demographically, you might group people who watch movies by their age or the movies they like. If you look more closely, you’d realize that some people tell other people right away about the movies they watch. This behavior can be found in someone who is a teen-ager as well as someone who is retired. Understanding these behavioral differences help us discover unmet needs, and create great products. Indi also made a good point for selling the benefits of user research to management. Without taking a fresh look at your users, you are only using what you already know, and can miss opportunity.

After a brief break for drinks and socializing, Aviva Rosenstein took the stage to tell us about “Real Ethnography vs. Fake Ethnography.” Many of us in the interaction design field use the term “ethnographic research” to describe our flavor of qualitative research. Aviva presented an informative and entertaining academic perspective on what is and is not ethnography. Apparently, this is a debate even between university-trained ethnographers! In summary, Aviva made the useful point that interaction designers have different goals in performing our user research than cultural ethnographers, and that “ethnographically-inspired fieldwork” helps interaction designers gain insight, empathy with users and sparks creativity in design.

Kris Mihalic told us “What Mobile Research Accomplishes in 15 Minutes.” Kris shared his frustration that research and design are not always well aligned. Sometimes good research results in a great outcome. Sometimes good research does not result in a good outcome. Other times, good research has an ambiguous outcome. Kris concluded that “as a researcher, you have to live with the fact that results are sometimes not used.”

As the closing presenter, Dan Saffer brought down the house with his amusing and all-too-real “How to Lie with Design Research.” Covering a whole list of “don’ts” ranging “don’t go into the field unless you have to” through “answer questions you weren’t asked.” Dan provided an amusing reminder that user research is a powerful tool for both good and ill.

One thing I was really listening for was how people actually use research to do design. In my practice as an interaction designer, I find user research to be extremely important. I’m a strong advocate of ethnographically-inspired fieldwork (thanks for clarifying the difference Aviva!) because it helps me understand how people really work and think. I firmly believe that good research helps us create good design. It’s also easier to explain and defend design decisions when you can relate each decision to something observed in the field. To gain this level of traceability, Cooper teams model our research findings in many ways. Personas are perhaps the most well-known model, but we also model individual and group workflows, environments, and the way people think. Models help us interpret research data and make it actionable. Models also help us communicate volumes of data in an efficient way and serve as a useful reference for the entire team throughout the process.

I’ve seen some companies separate research and interaction design into two professional specialties, or even two different departments. At Cooper, we feel it’s important that interaction designers’ conduct at least some portion of the research themselves so there’s good continuity between the research and the design decisions. When research is conducted by multiple people, it’s important to jointly review and synthesize the data so everyone is working from the same models.

I appreciated a chance to hear the perspective of people in the user research community and hope to continue the conversation at the next User Research Friday.


Lately I've been using the term, "Flash Ethnography" to describe what most Cooper teams do, and to distinguish our activities from those practiced by academic antrhopologists. We do it in a flash, getting to know people in their cube farms in the span of an hour or maybe sitting with a nursing crew at a hospital for a morning or a high school playground for a day. Time aside, the critical thing to bear in mind in these flash ethnography events is listening for what matters to *them* rather than pushing your own agenda. Sure, we'd love to do the Jane Goodall thing and spend year after year with the native species. But we've found that you quickly get to the point of diminishing returns, anyway. More to the point, we value the variety of human experience, because that's when patterns start to pop. Do you have a couple of weeks of research time at your disposal (?!) It's better to spend an hour or two with one or two dozen people, than to spend a dozen or two dozen hours with just couple of people.
Steve Portigal
Thanks for putting together a summary. There was a lot of ideas flying around (a *good* thing) and it's hard to summarize but this gives a really decent sense of what the day was about. My slides - sans notes or audio - are at
Nicolas Holzapfel
"unless you’re extremely lucky, user research is critical for product innovation" I know it's a controversial thing to say, but I completely disagree with this. I wrote my dissertation on this subject, in relation to the design of social media, and ended up concluding that user research was not at all critical to successful innovation. I've summarised my point of view here:
steve portigal
For what it's worth, Nicolas, that's not exactly what I said in my presentation. I referenced a BayCHI presentation ( ) where someone from Google pointed to their original interface as being produced without research. I said being lucky and being smart and other factors were part of Google's success but as their products have become more complex (Gmail, Google Reader, Google Maps) they are now bringing user research into their process.
lane halley
Hi Nicolas, thanks so much for your comment and pointer to your article. Your comment refers to Steve Portigal's observation that "unless you’re extremely lucky, user research is critical for product innovation". After reading your post, it seems that you are not saying that user research isn't useful, just that in the case of social media, you get more useful feedback after you've put something in front of users. I wonder if you and Steve may be more in agreement than you realize, because he also said that ..."ideally, research and design are done as a loop, continuously." In my own practice, I find it's most critical that I work from a foundation of user research in the cases where I am designing for people who are unlike myself (for example, teen-agers), or who work in a domain that is unfamiliar to me (for example, doctors). It's also important to remember that when I do field research, I am not trying to discover the combination of features that will make the design successful, rather the underlying attitudes, perspectives and needs that help me get inside the heads of the people I want to serve, something I can't do nearly as well if I have not developed that important empathy with the users for whom I am designing. I guess I agree with Aviva when she said "'ethnographically-inspired fieldwork' helps interaction designers gain insight, empathy with users and sparks creativity in design." When you have that insight on your team, you have the opportunity to make better choices the first time out, and when you receive individual idiosyncratic feedback from your user population, you're in a better place to evaluate it and make appropriate course corrections.
Nicolas Holzapfel
Steve: Thanks for the clarification. Lane: When I first discovered user-centred design I was convinced it was the 'be all and end all' of design. The article on my blog is just the more nuanced perspective I eventually arrived at. Although I would say my perspective is considerably less pro-UCD than most interaction designers, it certainly isn't anti-UCD or dismissive of it either. I wouldn't disagree with anything you said in your reply for example. I would say that UCD is always useful but often not critical. However in the case of design for activities of which the designer has little awareness from his or her own experience (as in your own practice) I would happily say that the whole UCD process is absolutely critical. Thanks for the reply anyhow!

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