Monday, January 22, 2007

The dangers of using the mirror

I recently read David Gilmore's "Understanding and Overcoming Resistance to Ethnographic Design Research" (Interactions 9, 3 [May 2002], pp. 29-35).

This article tackles the dilemma of making the case for an ethnographic approach to user research – i.e., how to differentiate it from marketing research. The critical point seems to be that they are two kinds of research studying the same thing (potential users):
  • Marketing research uses generalities to inform business decisions;
  • User research uses a true understanding of user concerns to inform design decisions.

The author argues that encouraging stakeholders to hold a mirror up to themselves -- to self-observe and to tell specific stories about their own experiences -- is a good way to open the door of acceptance to detailed user research.

Gilmore's right about the need to differentiate between marketing efforts and user research efforts. However, when push comes to shove and dollars are on the table, I’m hard pressed to believe that self-observation and storytelling alone will be enough to get decision makers on-board.

I've been involved in too many instances where those in power used self-observation to kill any efforts to research the users of their products:

  • "Hell, I go to plenty of web sites, and nobody I know does it like that!"
  • "I asked a few people around my office, and they all do it this way."
  • "Common sense should tell you that most people would do it this way."

Either that, or they use marketing/sales objectives to justify a design decision. I'm reminded of a job I once had as content administrator of a 1800+ FAQ database. Someone came up with the idea that links to purchase information should be included at the end of every piece of FAQ content. The thinking was, "while we've got their attention about the product they already own, why don't we provide a link to a detail page for one of the product's accessories? If they don't click on it, fine -- if they do, we may have a potential sale."

All well and good, but they didn't take the user into account. What if (s)he was having trouble with the product and came to the site to get troubleshooting information? These people would likely have at least a small amount of irritation or frustration that their product is not working properly -- is that the right time to hit them up for a sale? In this case, what on the surface makes sense for marketing could actually harm user relations.

Influential stakeholders may indeed need to be educated on the value of detailed user research, but deflecting the observations back on them probably isn't the answer. Better to demonstrate value in terms of bottom line (decreased calls to customer support, increased traffic to a buying environment, etc.) and of benefits that come from designing with real user goals, motivations and attitudes in mind.

As Gilmore ultimately states, "The aim should be to develop a design process grounded in the realities of people’s lives, not in stereotypes."

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