UX: An art in search of a methodology

In my previous incarnation as a philosopher, I spent a lot of effort trying to argue for a different, phenomenological approach to the sciences of cognition – the very sciences at the root of the study of human-computer interaction. I find myself turning back to that train of thought in light of recent discussions I’ve had around establishing a methodology for user experience design.

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In my previous incarnation as a philosopher, I spent a lot of effort trying to argue for a different, phenomenological approach to the sciences of cognition – the very sciences at the root of the study of human-computer interaction. I find myself turning back to that train of thought in light of recent discussions I’ve had around establishing a methodology for user experience design.

One thing that American philosopher Richard Rorty really liked about his student Robert Brandom‘s book Making It Explicit was that the word “experience” was not to be found anywhere in the index. Rorty was one of the most important philosophers of language of his time – as Brandom is today – and their pragmatist approach is extremely influential in contemporary philosophical circles.

Rorty’s praise – which Brandom would no doubt have appreciated – gives you some idea of how far contemporary trends in interface design, which regard the design task as enhancing or enabling certain sorts of user experience, are from the mainstream philosophical conceptions of what such users are and what they are doing when they engage with texts and symbols everywhere, including online.

Balancing Intuition and Evidence

Perhaps like all forms of design, in practice user experience design rarely resembles the execution of a method, so much as it resembles the practice of an art. There is a heavy reliance on intuition, and when a designer does choose to refer to some piece of shared knowledge, that knowledge usually takes the form of a pattern (in the architectural sense) rather than empirical studies or a unified theoretical framework. (There’s no problem with stealing from other intellectual traditions – as Vicky Teinaki suggests – while theoretical frameworks are regarded simply as large pattern repositories.)

The famous Sidney Harris cartoon - must we be more explicit?

The famous Sidney Harris cartoon - must we be more explicit?

Still, it’s not uncommon for designers to worry that such a heavy dependency on intuition is problematic, or at least risky. As the profession matures, and businesses establish a more critical engagement with agencies offering UX design services, clients are becoming more confident in demanding details of the design process itself, in the hope of ensuring that an agency is designing for that client’s customers and not simply to satisfy the tastes of its own designers.

In this way, there is a growing sense that user experience design should be – not merely intuitive – but evidence-based. The emphasis on user testing in all its forms is a manifestation of this.

Partially because the way we test our designs resembles a traditional psychological or ethnographic study, it’s often assumed that the kind of evidence required is statistical evidence. I want to suggest that this may actually be a misunderstanding – itself a result of a naturalistic bias inherent in our society – and to suggest an alternative view.

Finding a methodology that is true to practice

This tension between the design process itself and the requirement that its products have statistical validity is felt most keenly when trying to articulate a UX methodology, for example, in the context of a pitch, or to formalise the design process. It quickly becomes clear that any method that lives up to this requirement is one that no UX project could ever actually live up to.

On the one hand, no design firm has the time or the resources to conduct a large-scale psychological or ethnographic study of the users whose experience they are purporting to represent. In a world in which quantitative analysis is king: the rapid, qualitative psychological studies that are standard among designers appear as nothing more than arbitrary, and certainly insufficiently large, sample populations.

On the other hand, there is the hunch that this lack of statistical rigor may well be a “good thing”. Incomplete data leaves room for designers; for the speculative leaps that are what make design feel like design. And anyway, the alternative threatens to make the process into something akin to “design by committee” – where the committee is a population in the hundreds… or hundreds of thousands!

Proving the pudding

At this point, it’s important to distinguish between imposing the requirement of statistical validity on the design process, and imposing it on the products of that process, i.e. on the design itself. I’m not trying to argue that user experience design should be immune to criticism, nor that the only criticism a user experience designer should listen to is that of another designer. The ultimate test of any design is how it actually performs in the wild, in front of those hundreds of thousands, and every effort should be made to identify design flaws in advance of a product’s release by exposing it to tens – or hundreds – of potential users in a controlled setting. (Of course, the test setting needs to controlled, not to resemble the target audience, which is “in the wild”, but to minimise the assumptions built into the inferences derived from the test results; to maximise their scalability.)

Eye tracking - tells you what is wrong, not right

Eye tracking - tells you what is wrong, not right

Let’s spend another moment on user testing, because it will help clarify the kind of validity that I think is appropriate for user experience design. The thing about user testing – which as I’ve said, should be grounded in statistical evidence – is that it can tell you that a component of a design is broken, but not what is broken about it.

Take the case of eye-tracking. An eye-tracking study can reveal that the current design inhibits the completion of a particular step or objective. It does so by illuminating that a statistically significant section of the population tested took an inordinate amount of time to complete that step or objective (where inordinate might mean “above average” or “above a certain threshold”).

But the crucial thing is to realise that this is all it reveals. In order to diagnose the problem, a different sort of mode of interrogation is required. It’s necessary to watch one particular case, or a few, and develop a sense of what is going on.

It’s tempting to say that this sense is an “interpretation” of the data, but that word is loaded up with all sorts of connotations, and these get in the way of capturing the richness of the experience of watching another human being interact with something and ultimately understanding the nature of that interaction.

Diagnosing a usability problem is an achievement

An interpretation is commonly parsed as a point of view on something. Moreover, all points of view are necessarily subjective, so an interpretation is just my point of view – it has no objective validity. What that misses is that while this point of view I am offering is mine now, it’s something I’ve achieved, namely by watching another human being whose behaviour I didn’t predict or initially understand. In diagnosing a problem with our design on the basis of watching someone else interact with it, I take my best stab at adopting the point of view of the person I’m watching.

Now, it may be that I fail to adopt their point of view entirely, and I may even be wrong in my diagnosis of the problem, but clearly, it isn’t just my point of view that’s involved here. At the very least, the diagnostic point of view I come to adopt has its origins (and so, some of its validity) in the behaviour of the test subject.

What’s more, there’s obviously a skill involved here – an ability to effectively, and reliably, adopt other points of view, other ways of engaging with an interface. This is the skill that I suggest is at the heart of all user experience design.

But a UX designer has to do more than this. After all, our brief is to design for all users in one fell swoop. Thus, to develop a unified design – a design that works – a UX designer has to discover that configuration of design elements that has a relatively stable meaning across the diverse range of potential modes of engagement that can be adopted by users. User testing, therefore, keeps a user experience designer honest. Testing exposes a design to an actual diversity of actual modes of engagement, and the point is to ensure the designer hasn’t become parochial or staid in their approach, favouring one or a few modes over all others.

Psychology with a sample space of one

Edmund Husserl

Edmund Husserl - 1859-1938.

The picture I have painted above of user experience design is remarkably similar to that of phenomenological psychology, as championed by the early twentieth-century German philosopher, Edmund Husserl. As I have tried to do above with regard to design, Husserl counterposed his phenomenological understanding of psychology as an “eidetic” science, or science of essences, against an empirical psychology grounded in statistical data. An essence for Husserl is an invariant structure in our engagement with things. It is, if you like, the flip-side of understanding how a certain perceptual structure might be misunderstood. Once you have exhausted the ways something can be misunderstood, or misperceived, what you have left is its essence. The crucial point is that Husserl regarded these essences as a perfectly valid form of evidence on which to base inferences about the world and our behaviour within it. In fact, he regarded it as the only philosophically respectable form of evidence.

That might be going too far, and Husserl was probably also overreaching in jumping straight from endorsing the practice of criticising assumptions by exercising the skill of misperceiving, to asserting the existence of an essence of every perception. But what is clear, however, is this: if what I have said above about user experience design is correct, the methodology of user experience design might share a great deal with that of phenomenology.

An association with phenomenology might go some way toward alleviating that anxiety associated with trying to establish a methodology for UX design. I’ve heard phenomenological psychology described as “psychology with a sample space of one”. Among phenomenologists, that’s not a cause for embarrassment. It’s a source of pride. And that’s because to them it’s a reaffirmation of both the possibility of adopting perspectives other than our own and our responsibility to do so as reflective human beings. What UX designer wouldn’t want to be associated with that?

In case you want to learn more about phenomenology:

I can recommend the New World Encyclopedia article on Eidetic Reduction – this is the technical term for the “skill of misperceiving” I describe above – I’d never used this resource before, but it has a better article than Wikipedia.

Also, have a look at Hubert Dreyfuss with Bryan Magee on Husserl, Heidegger and Existentialism (70s BBC show), which gives a nice overview of the tradition in the comfort of a soft, beige couch!

Husserl image via Wikipedia

Thinker image from seatbelt67 CC BY 2.0
Eye tracking image from travelinlibrarian CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Justin Tauber

Justin Tauber is a UX Consultant in the Sydney office of Profero, the global digital agency. He is also the author of "Invitations: Merleau-Ponty, Cognitive Science and Phenomenology", published by VDM Verlag in 2007. He blogs, sporadically, at justintauber.com.

11 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: UX: An art in search of a methodology | Adobe Tutorials

  2. Great thoughts, but I am left wanting for your conclusion: I can’t tell from your article, for example, if your title is a call to action (“we still need a good methodology!”) or a diagnosis of a problem (“we shouldn’t be searching for methodologies in the first place!”).

    Thank you, however, for noting just how bad the methodologies in play often are. Too often the UX world advocates statistical, quantitative, empirical approaches that in the end are just scientifically weak (due to tiny samples, poor methodology, etc.) instead of embracing the qualitative and, gasp, *inspirational* value of very similar kinds of research.

  3. AJ on

    I am somewhat reluctant to criticize, but this touches on some thoughts I’ve had lately.

    1) UX practitioners want to have more authority, and there’s no higher authority than science in western culture right now.
    2) That said, arguing from authority is a logical / rhetorical fault. Is having a “collection of design patterns” better or worse than having a methodology? I’m not sure, but “methodology” sure sounds more authoritative. Patterns sound like something you buy at K-Mart to make your own clothes with, and _anyone_ can do that.

    From my own phenomenological analysis: UX design in practice is much less about idealized Platonic rules. You get time and money to do “science” in only very rare cases — it’s important, yes, but worrying about the epistemology of UX methods is a relative luxury for most of us.

    Maybe it would be more helpful to think of UX design as a skilled craft rather that trying to pitch it higher as Art or Science. I cannot help but be reminded how starchitects, blinded by the purity of their vision, often forget about the day-to-day human experience of their buildings, and thus we end up with charmless, unusable, alienating spaces. Professional home builders may not garner headlines nor innovate as much, but they get the small details (the points of interaction) right. Their products are familiar, navigable, welcoming. At their best, they also embody some artistic vision, are personalized and adaptable.

    But knowing how “professions” work, I doubt we will be satisfied in the role of craftspeople. We want degrees and Authority and the fatter salaries that go along with them….Myself included. In the end, though, does having that kind of authority actually help UX practice, or just accelerates its ossification?

  4. Mads on

    Great article. Much has been, and is being said on this issue. Personally, I really enjoyed reading Wright & McCarthy’s “Technology as Experience” – it touches upon some of the same ground – as does Winograd’s (1986) collection “Bringing Design to Software”…

    @Eric Reiss: I believe that what you propose is a method rather than a methodology – what the author suggests here is that the whole epistemological issue of (interaction) design cannot be solved in, say, a single method or a single approach.

    The great thing about interrogating the (non) scientific roots of design is that we find ourselves in a position where we can begin to question the reliance on e.g. stats and maths.

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  6. Avi on

    Enjoyed this very much. I’ve thought about Phenomenology on and off in the years since I first was introduced to it at university. But I never connected it so directly to my current work. Much food for thought.

    Perhaps the success (if mixed) of personas is related? They are, after all, an exercise in empathy. By (artificially) congealing and reducing subjectivity of “others/users” into personas and scenarios, UX practitioners use them to help clients and co-workers “adopt” those “others’/users’” points of view.

  7. Thanks for the comments, folks, and for the references. I have some more reading to do!

    I think a distinction between method and methodology might be useful here: A method is a set of techniques that are more or less conventionally subscribed to by the UX community. A methodology is a theoretical grounding for that collection of techniques.

    It seems pretty reasonable to say that the UX community is quite agnostic when it comes to techniques, but that it also does tend to gravitate toward qualitative rather than quantitative methods. I suppose I’m suggesting that both intuitions can find theoretical support from the phenomenological tradition.

    There’s something very appealing about AJ’s description of UX as a craft. UX is probably a craft, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no need to clarify or justify the special craftsmanship of the UX practitioner for others. I haven’t read it yet, but I think Richard Sennett’s latest book “The Craftsmen” (there’s a nice review at the Times Online http://is.gd/4t6DR) might help to clarify what UX as a craft means, and more importantly, how to articulate and defend its value within a scientistic society.

    Avi’s point about personas is interesting, and may inadvertently reveal an ethical element to UX design. After all, ‘(artificially) congealing and reducing subjectivity of “others/users” into personas and scenarios’ may be an act of empathy, if done well. On the other hand, it could just as easily amount to turning other people into caricatures of themselves, and so threaten to be an abuse of that same empathy. As UX practitioners, our role is ambiguous. We represent the diversity and richness of human experience back to businesses who are often notoriously insensitive to it. But at the same time, we make that same diversity and richness digestible in a commercial context.

    I’m curious to know if readers of this magazine feel that there is this ethical – or even democratic – element to their work. Or am I just overdoing it?

  8. Pingback: Quantifying the User Experience « Frictionless Design

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