David Farkas on how to approach user research

The O’Reilly Design Podcast: Asking the right questions, conducting research in an agile environment, and conscious confidence.

By Mary Treseler
April 13, 2017
Mindmap. Mindmap. (source: Pixabay)

In this week’s Design Podcast, I sit down with David Farkas, associate director of user experience at EPAM and co-author of the book UX Research. We talk about his book, why everyone should learn to conduct research, and how to open up your mind to ask the right questions.

Farkas and his co-author Brad Nunnally also are teaching a series of online courses:

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  • Learning UX Research: Understanding Methods and Techniques—May 8 or July 10, 2017.
  • Learning UX Research: Analyzing Data and Sharing Results—May 22 or July 24, 2017.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

Asking the right questions

The best way to understand if your product or service is resonating with the customers is through some sort of observation. Regardless of your role within an organization, I think everyone should have some awareness of the research going on and, at the very least, be observing it, if not directing and driving it themselves.

I think there are two main areas people struggle with when asking questions, especially in the context of research. The first way is trying to craft questions so they can sound smart and really knowledgeable about the domain. What we always have to remember when we’re conducting research is: this isn’t about showing off my skills as an interviewer or researcher. It’s about trying to learn something new. There’s this discomfort in a lot of places—and I’ve felt it too and I still feel it, depending on the project domain—where we want to be able to go into a research session knowing everything we need to know to ask the smartest questions. That’s counterintuitive in a lot of ways to what research is—the whole reason we conduct research is because we don’t know something.

The first challenge is trying to sound smart when conducting research, when the whole point of conducting research is to fill a knowledge gap. The second challenge is probably a little bit bigger: when conducting research, you really want to elevate the participant. It sort of comes second to wanting to look smart. You have to put that ego down and make sure the person you’re conducting research with is able to look and feel like a rockstar. This is particularly hard when doing any type of product testing or product validation, where the participant might feel frustrated about not being able to accomplish a task. It’s important to make sure they know this is not about them or their skill sets. It’s about their opinions, and putting them in the best light possible is a really hard challenge for even good researchers, but it’s an important skill newer researchers need to learn and practice.

Agile and UX research: Debunking research misconceptions

There’s a bit of a misconception that thorough means long, time consuming, and expensive. Thorough really just means, in my mind, that it’s ongoing. I think the real lesson in any type of Agile or Lean environment is that any research is better than no research, and to start as small as you possibly need to. If that’s gorilla research, taking out sketches to a coffee shop and having a conversation there, it gets the ball rolling, it gets the conversation started. There’s a lot of risk involved in doing gorilla research like that as opposed to doing something a little more formal and properly sourcing your participants, but any research is better than no research.

There’s another misconception that research has to happen at the beginning of a project, and if we missed the research, the ship has sailed. Really, we can do research at any time, and we should do research at any time. When we’re discovering the problem, defining the solution, and validating the solution, all of those things can happen very quickly and become part of a sprint cycle and part of our design iterations.

One of the most common misconceptions is that you need to be a researcher to do research. I’ve been on projects where everyone—business analysts, project managers, account managers, etc.—has conducted the research with me. With a five- or 10-minute conversation beforehand, they’ve been able to understand what our area of inquiry is and learn some best practices in terms of the participant dynamics between the researcher, moderator, and note taker. Really, with just a little bit of training and preparation, anyone can conduct research.

The conscious confidence matrix

The idea of the ‘conscious confidence matrix’ starts with actually being unconsciously incompetent. It’s the idea that you start out not knowing what you don’t know, and then you move into knowing what you don’t know; knowing what you know; and, finally, subconsciously knowing what you do know. It becomes ingrained in you. That only happens through research, so the idea that you start not knowing what you don’t know is like this: ‘David, you’re going to be doing a project on a large health care application. Okay, I don’t know anything about health care, I don’t know where to start.’ That’s actually the first question of research—then I can start to understand that the project is about these areas of health care, and I know I don’t know about these three of the four areas, so let me explore that. Then, I learn about those areas and, on a very conscious level, I can pull the different pieces of knowledge out of my memory bank. Then, ultimately, by the end of the project, the knowledge is so ingrained in my brain that I don’t have to think about what the answers are when people ask me about acronyms or workflow or process; it just becomes a natural part of my conversation and something I’m able to speak about naturally.

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