Discover more from The ¼″ Hole
UX researchers, it's time to go public with your insights
It may not pay the bills, but it's deep in our roots, and it advances the field
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
In that simple but memorable phrase, Isaac Newton poetically described the way that science advances: incrementally, by building upon the work of others. User experience (UX) is no different. And many of our practices spring from a rich tradition, being rooted in debates and insights wrought from academic literature.
Yet much of the work we do as UX researchers never reaches a broad audience. Why is that, and what would it look like if we put more into the public sphere? Let’s look at the history and benefits of engaging in public-facing UX research — and how you can get started today.
Establishing our foundations in public
For over four decades, professionals have been practicing in the field of user experience, though the discipline has been known by various names.
In the early days, engineers made most or all decisions about product experience, including its interaction and interface design. It wasn’t at all clear why professionals with backgrounds in the social sciences might have an important role to play in the process. So our practices first earned their legitimacy in debates carried out in academic history, such as human factors and human-computer interaction (HCI).
Many of our methods, theories, approaches, and philosophies were discussed and refined in academic journals and debates like those held at academic conferences.
We owe foundational techniques and concepts such as heuristic evaluation, mental models, diary studies, cognitive walkthroughs, naturalistic observation, inspection methods, and best practices on sample sizes to researchers who published their work through peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings. They even sought to demonstrate the financial return of investing in usability.
This transparency allowed practitioners from different parts of the world to see how others were working, test it themselves, and, if needed, challenge it. It also gave the field credibility and legitimacy as a proper scientific endeavor.
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Insights locked away
Although as many as three-quarters of working UX researchers possess some graduate training, most of our work is confidential and serves only the private organizations that employ us.
This system has some advantages. It protects company intellectual property and trade secrets and distinguishes innovative, usable experiences as a competitive advantage. It also shields companies from some liability that public research institutions face.
Of course, organizations like Nielsen Norman Group and Baymard Institute stand out as examples to the contrary, as they regularly publish independent research that drives the field forward in blog posts and white papers. However, this kind of work is sometimes intended for lead generation purposes, and may thus be limited in scope or paywalled.
Scholars in the fields of human factors and HCI continue to research and publish. But in recent years, the topics that interest academic researchers and attract grant funding have had less overlap with those that are most important for UX researchers working in the industry.Though sharing a common heritage, the two disciplines have evolved independently.
Unfortunately, this means that UX doesn’t benefit as broadly as it once did from emerging discussions on methodologies, approaches, and innovations. It also means that the best and brightest minds working in the industry often have little opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other unless they happen to work for the same company.
The benefits of sharing your work
We can learn from the way other disciplines balance public and private research.
In medicine, while private companies conduct their own pharmaceutical research and patent drugs and vaccines for their own benefit, many researchers also contribute to the public store of information. This advances the innovation taking place in private industry and prevents wasted, duplicative efforts.
Artificial intelligence researchers often have the responsibility of sharing and disseminating research. Employees of OpenAI, Meta, and Google all publish findings in academic journals, which advances the field and prevents stagnation. For example, the recent boom in generative artificial intelligence, largely popularized by OpenAI, was first seeded by research published by Google.
Processes like these can also improve the quality of the research itself. For example, anonymous peer review is uncommon for independent researchers or those working in companies. Except in companies with very large research teams, where researchers are unlikely to know each other, it’s just not practical. Nevertheless, replicability and validity are legitimate concerns with any research study — including UX research, which is subject to a significant evaluator effect.
Individual UX researchers may also benefit from engaging the public. Visibility of their work, and the feedback and collaboration resulting from their papers can have long-term advantages for careers.
How you can start
Whatever your idea — for example, a generalizable finding from a usability test, a new methodology, or a critique of an old one — there are many ways to get it out there.
A peer-reviewed study in a reputable journal is still a gold standard for some. And while there are other options in this vein, such as posting to pre-print repositories like arXiv.org, many UX researchers, having attained a graduate degree or left the academy, have no desire to return to publishing in this way.
Other options include submitting proposals to conferences like UXPA and UXRConf, or sharing more informally through a blog, podcast, or newsletter. Each method has its own benefits and drawbacks worth considering, such as accessibility, convenience, status, timeliness, reach, and engagement.
Whichever path you choose, there will be challenges to overcome, such as ethical issues, legal risks, and the cost of funding.
It may be necessary to consult with in-house legal teams, and conduct a thorough review to ensure no trade secrets or competitive advantages are shared. If budget’s unavailable to fund the study, researchers may need to find scrappy ways to address their hypotheses. Perhaps there will one day be a organization to sponsor this kind of work, similar to ACX or Helium Grants.
Summary and conclusion
Though our first responsibility as UX researchers is conducting high quality research for those we immediately serve, our field progresses when our work enters the public forum.
Our history: Debates in academic disciplines, such as human factors and HCI, helped legitimize UX practices as a proper scientific endeavor. Many foundational techniques and concepts were developed through peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, providing transparency and credibility to the field.
The trade-offs: Private research protects corporate intellectual property and trade secrets, it can also hinder collaboration and the sharing of innovations in methodologies and approaches. Other fields, such as medicine and AI research, benefit from a mix of private and public research, but UX research has yet to strike a similar balance.
How you can share: UX researchers can engage with the public through various forms of dissemination, such as peer-reviewed journals, pre-print repositories, conferences, blogs, podcasts, and newsletters. Each route has unique advantages and shared challenges, such as ethical issues, legal risks, and funding limitations.
As a UX researcher, you have a unique opportunity to advance our field with your insights and questions. Whether you want to explore a new topic, challenge a common assumption, or share a best practice, there are many ways to contribute to the public discourse of UX.
The future of our discipline needs your input.
3 QUICK THINGS FOR MAY
Not just talking the talk
In my work at UserZoom (now part of UserTesting), I’ve had the opportunity to conduct several studies intended for broader consumption. In the past, I’ve presented some of this work at conferences, but they will now have a permanent home at Center for Human Insight. Recent examples:
Crypto is still confusing for novice users: Uninitiated prospective crypto buyers found the experience wanting on Coinbase and Robinhood.
The UX of AI art generators: magical, mystifying, and macabre: Two text-to-image tools were simultaneously delightful and disappointing.
Thanks to all who participated in the UX Research Hiring and Interviewing survey. Thomas Stokes and I will present the findings at UXPA in Austin this June, and write-ups will follow here and atin July.
Yes, UX researchers are creative
There’s an old cliché that researchers are the analytical, logical ones, while designers are the creative, artistic ones — almost like the left- vs. right-hemisphere of the brain. Of course, it’s an oversimplification (as is that description of brain lateralization), but one that many take at face value.
In fact, both specializations require a blend of rational and intuitive thinking. And UX researchers could especially benefit by more intentionally leaning into the creative aspects of their work. A few examples:
Simplifying complex information: The data we plumb are messy, but the insights we extract from them should be clear. It takes some ingenuity to explain a concept in a pithy way or to find the right analogy or metaphor.
Working under constraints: Poetry can be beautiful and profound — but poems are often an exercise in writing under rules of form, rhyme, or meter. In the same way, every study is conducted with trade-offs. The trick is finding reliable information in those circumstances.
Problem-solving through divergent thinking: We often make conscious efforts to examine our biases in framing questions, but we are prone to others — like functional fixedness — which limit our view of the possible. Some problems can only be solved with an expansive or novel approach.
Becoming more comfortable with creativity will make you a more effective, well-rounded researcher.
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Until next time,
Although I’m pleased to note that this evidently isn’t true of patents, as shown in a recent award-winning paper by Hancheng Chao and colleagues from Stanford, UC Santa Barbara, and Carnegie Mellon.