It's easy to think of "user experience" as a practice specific to digital interfaces: where to place buttons, what to put on navigation menus, how to use video or images or text. But in my job as a UX researcher, I try to remember that user experience encompasses much more than software and interfaces. It describes a person's complete and total experience of a product or a brand, everything an end-user needs and wants from a system or product — and that means it is rooted in each person's preferences, perceptions, and prejudices.
When we research user experience, we aim to employ ethical practices to examine invisible sociocultural implications and barriers and better understand, design, and refine people's experience of products, services, and software.
This helps explain why my favorite pieces of UX research this year don't have much to do with software. They have to do with people—and how to come to a more complete understanding of the forces that are at play in determining a person's user experience.
Here are five favorites that motivate me to push the needle in my own work:
A podcast by Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex
You wouldn't immediately think of this podcast by the Duchess of Sussex as a piece of "UX research," but Markle uses her podcast to address stereotypes and stigmas in archetypes that we hear every day. She explores inequities in race and gender in today's media and enriches these observations with anecdotes from her own life. This turns out to be very relevant to the work we do in UX.
In each episode, Markle focuses on archetypes by examining one word in the western canon that has become entrenched with negative connotations. She discusses the implications of these words with pop culture icons, sociologists, athletes, and comedians to understand how this word has shaped their careers and life.
Then Markle challenges the interviewee and listener to pick three adjectives to describe themselves at that moment. In this exercise, she conveys the complexities of self-perception over time. Simultaneously, she provides an opportunity for us to define ourselves by introducing autonomy and ownership to representation and ultimately destigmatizing these archetypes.
Designers, researchers, and strategists have historically turned to archetypes and personas to account for the needs of unique groups and build consideration for edge cases into our process. Our team often discusses the shortcomings of archetypes and personas, especially those that rely solely on demographic information. Cindy Brummer, a well-known UX designer and strategist, identifies potential pitfalls in using personas that simply focus on age, race, gender, occupation, etc.
To avoid the pitfalls of traditional archetypes, our team (led by our Creative VP Alex Carr) champions behavioral archetypes to inform our digital design decisions: we evaluate processes based on patterns of human behavior rather than on outward appearance and perception. Behavioral archetypes give us clearer insight into a user's expectations and needs when they approach a product or system.
Here are a few episodes of Archetypes that I especially love:
"The Duality of Diva with Mariah Carey" — for the careful examination of our perception of glamour and power and how the connotations of "diva" have changed in the last half-century.
"The Demystification of Dragon Lay with Margaret Cho & Lisa Ling" — for the honest discussion of stereotypes that have limited Asian women in popular media and tactical methods to combat these limitations today.
"'Man-ifesting a Cultural Shift' with Trevor Noah, Andy Cohen, and Judd Apatow" — for the opportunity for all persons to participate as an ally in our cultural conversations.
A whitepaper shared at the 2022 UPXA Boston Conference by Carol J. Smith, a senior research scientist of human-machine interaction at Carnegie Mellon's Software Engineering Institute, focusing on the need for designers to advance human-centered AI
This whitepaper draws on UX frameworks like Peter Morville's "User Experience Honeycomb" to define tactical steps for engaging responsibly in creative spaces to reduce the risk of harm and minimize unintended consequences of AI systems.
Step by step, Smith shares innovations, challenges, and opportunities for developing and deploying responsible AI—but along the way, she also reveals opportunities for rigor in UX design more broadly. As researchers and designers, we can extrapolate these steps to evaluate products and systems and monitor a user's experience.
Examples of how these steps translate into questions in my day-to-day work:
Understanding the complexity of the context—What is most important to how and when a user engages with this product or system? How will these circumstances change with time?
Designing for human-machine teaming—What efficiencies can we leverage and develop in a product or system? How will users engage with new tools?
Engaging in critical oversight—What procedures best catch bugs in this product or system? How do we proactively monitor for changes, new edge cases, and shortcomings in these procedures?
A newsletter by Ian Prasad Philbrick featuring Jennifer Parrucci, a senior taxonomist at The New York Times
This article brings to life some of the complexities and opportunities in designing information architecture (IA) systems that are easy to navigate—a task that is especially relevant for extensive archives like The New York Times. As our digital worlds evolve, we see the ever-expanding field of IA specialize into more distinct roles, and one such role is taxonomist, a person who is responsible for classifying and sorting information and establishing or maintaining rules within a given system. Parruci, a Times taxonomist, points to the massive undertaking of the New York Times Index, an exercise started in 1913 to audit, categorize, and tag "every person, organization, location, and event the paper has written about."
For designers and researchers of digital experiences, it is critical to understand how to develop and support intuitive information architecture for users so that they can find the information they seek. UX researchers support IA by bringing proposed information groupings – things like site structure, organization, and naming conventions – to real users, and testing for feedback.
Some takeaways from this interview:
How organizing information reveals patterns in human behavior
How intuitive organization and clear information groupings democratizes access
How methods and strategies for navigating information continue to evolve with technology and society
An exhibition at the BSA Space by ArchiteXX with curators Lori Brown, Andrea Merrett, Sarah Rafson, and Roberta Washington
I found the organization ArchiteXX while I was still in architecture school, and I continue to employ their critical and thoughtful approach to understanding design implications for user experience in digital spaces. Additionally, this effort is close to my heart: I got to be part of the team installing this traveling exhibition at their Boston venue, and I had the pleasure of working with Sarah Rafson at her curatorial and editorial agency, Point Line Projects, which publishes unique publications on architecture, art, and design.
Now What?! is an exhibition that looks at the history of architects and designers who have shaped today's more equitable spaces. The exhibit debuted in 2018 after many years of collecting and curating historical pieces that demonstrate designers' impact on civil rights, women's, and LGBTQ movements in the United States.
The exhibition showcases essential concepts used in today's UX design and research—beginning with the process and methods of the exhibition designers themselves, who must ensure that all visitors can access and experience the content.
Unique pieces in the Boston exhibition:
The exterior drew visitors in with a playful, bright vinyl window treatment decorated with thought-provoking questions like "Which designers do we hear, see, and award?"
The Boston Changemakers Wall is a living archive—an entire gallery wall that captures the efforts of local people, projects, and organizations that use design to address injustice in our city.
The Pledge Wall invited visitors to join the Now What?! cause by writing their name and commitment to supporting equitable design practices and spaces.
A real-life docuseries with Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O'Hara, and Shangela Laquifa Wadley
In the third season of this docuseries, three drag queens continue to showcase the art of drag in small-town America. Each episode follows the queens in recruiting locals to perform in one-night-only drag shows and has been praised for uncovering "deeper truths about small-town America that are often presented through a reductive lens, while finding the nuances of life and diversity."
You might be wondering how a reality show featuring former RuPaul's Drag Race contestants is related to UX research. This show is UX research. It provides a lens into the unique experiences of queer individuals, and as a real-life docuseries, it is a powerful research deliverable in itself—a mixed-methods approach that combines an ethnographic venture with a diary study. It documents the researchers' process, revealing the trials and errors that bring a performance to life, and it also allows us to witness pivotal instances of pushback and reception from individuals in these small towns.
A few things I've learned:
How to celebrate and embrace authenticity despite even the most hostile circumstances
How to embrace difficult conversations about intimate and vulnerable topics like gender and sexuality experience
How to support and build communities and safe spaces for our children and the generations that follow to express themselves wholly
Looking back on what I've learned as a UX researcher over the past year, I'm delighted that many of the best lessons came from unexpected places and fuel a more interdisciplinary and intersectional approach to digital design. We have no idea how the world will change this year. Despite these uncertainties, I look forward to learning more about people via the innovative thinkers and their creations that will challenge our perceptions and prejudices of today.