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.)
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.)
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
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