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Perhaps it’s simply the wishful thinking of a James Bond fan (I have all of the movies on DVD), but I find it interesting and useful to compare what I do to other lines of work. For example, last year, I compared user research to ghost hunting.

What can we learn from James Bond?

In both occupations, an expert is brought in to solve a problem. In one case, an evil madman and his deformed henchman are threatening to destroy the Middle East oil fields with a nuclear weapon. In another case, an electronics company wants to redesign its order management software. In both of these critical situations, we investigate the problem by conducting background research, questioning people, and observing behavior. We overcome obstacles to get to the truth and eventually conquer the problem.

Get the Briefing

After an exciting opening action sequence, Bond meets with M, the head of MI6, to learn about his new mission. M gives him the background of the situation, profiles of the people involved, and a direction of where to begin the investigation.

In user research, our M is usually the project manager or the salesperson –the individual who has had the most contact with the client during the sales process. It’s a good idea to have an internal meeting to get all the details and understand the project before the official kickoff meeting with the client. The last thing you want your team to do is go in unprepared and uncoordinated in your first meeting with the client.

Do advance research

Before engaging the enemy, James Bond examines exisiting documents and photographs, gathering background and situational information.

In user research, it’s also important to do advanced research to understand the client and the project. Examine the current interface, background documents, and talk with people familiar with previous research. You can ask the client and stakeholders better questions and you can better understand their answers if you’re well informed before the first meeting.

Don’t rely too much on technology

Bond meets with Q, the technology expert, to get the latest gadgets. And sure, the cool cars and laser watches are fun, but they only give him a slight advantage. Most of his success is due to his own wits, dexterity, and fighting skills.

Likewise, researchers need to be familiar with the latest user research technology (audio and video recorders, cameras, online testing tools, etc.), but the most value comes from people – both those you interact with and you through your skills, knowledge and effort.

Get help from others

We tend to think of James Bond as a loner, but in truth he gets a lot of help from other agents (i.e., CIA agent Felix Leiter) and by allying himself with others (i.e., Pussy Galore, Octopussy, Vesper Lynd, etc.).

User research can be conducted alone, but it’s much easier to have a partner to help you with note taking, handling the equipment, and providing another perspective. In fact, two is the ideal number of people for user research. In addition to helping run the sessions, a second researcher or designer is someone you can collaborate with to understand the findings and discuss solutions. Two heads are often better than one when you’ve both witnessed the same research sessions firsthand.

Get out into the field

James Bond doesn’t sit at a desk in a command center, observing spy satellite images and listening to communication monitoring devices. Even though that’s how a lot of espionage is conducted today, Bond knows that the most useful knowledge comes from being out in the field, talking to people and observing them in person.

Similarly, a lot of user research today is conducted in a usability lab, remotely through web conferencing and screen sharing software, and through unmoderated, web-based tools. But, like espionage, the best information is gained by going out into the field to talk with and observe people doing their usual tasks in their natural context. There’s no better way to understand users and their needs than by seeing their everyday jobs firsthand.

Observe remotely when you can’t get out into the field

In addition to going out into the field, James Bond can use remote surveillance, satellites, and listening devices to gather information.

Unlike spying, we have to get participants’ permission, but we can conduct usability testing and even contextual inquiries through web conferencing and screen sharing software. It may not be as good as being there in person, but it’s better than not being able to do any research or limiting the research to only the people we can travel to.

Spy on people

As a spy, Bond surreptitiously observes suspects. The advantage is that he can see what people naturally do when they don’t know they are being observed.  They don’t act differently; as they would if they knew they were being observed.

Obviously, it’s not ethical for user researchers to spy on people in private locations. We have to get informed consent from participants, which requires us to tell them about the study. The problem is that knowledge of being observed affects behavior. There’s no getting around this dilemma; it’s just something that we have to accept and take into consideration.

Neverthless, we can learn from James Bond in leading discreet observations of people in public places. Unlike spying in private locations, there’s no law or ethical rule against simply observing people in public sites. Remain incognito and observe what people do naturally when they don’t know they are being watched. Take note of the environment, the interactions between people, the artifacts involved, and the problems they encounter.

Interrogate the right people

In addition to observation, James Bond gets much of his information by questioning people –using force if needed.

Obviously, user researchers can never use force (however tempting that may seem sometimes), but interviewing is a key method for gathering information. Start by interviewing your clients and other stakeholders to understand the current situation, the business needs, and the goals for the project. Although observation of natural behavior usually gives you better insights than asking people about what they do, it’s still important to ask questions to clarify your understanding of what you’re seeing.

Report findings to headquarters

Because he’s out in the field and could get captured or killed, Bond periodically updates M at headquarters about the progress of his investigation. Otherwise, they wouldn’t know what was going on with the investigation.

A user researcher is often out in the field conducting research, doing analysis, and creating deliverables. Weeks might pass between reviewing the final research plan with clients and the final presentation of the research findings. Without knowing what’s going on, clients sometimes wonder why research takes so long. Providing periodic updates makes your client and team feel like progress is being made. It also keeps them involved in the research, which makes them feel more invested in the findings.

Avoid capture and escape death

At some point during every mission, Bond gets captured and set up for an elaborate death, whether it’s to be cut in half by a laser, attacked by sharks, eaten by crocodiles, or burned alive by rocket exhaust. After the villain explains his entire plan and conveniently leaves the scene, Bond narrowly escapes.

Although we rarely come across evil villains, we sometimes do get challenged by a particularly difficult client or stakeholder. With these people, it’s important to keep your wits about you to avoid getting injured. At other times, we get captured by long-winded and opinionated participants who completely take over the session, pontificating on irrelevant side-tracks and resisting all of our attempts to regain control of the session. When you find yourself in this dire situation, remain calm and look for a way to wrap up the session. If you can’t reign in a difficult participant, then it’s best to simply end the session.

Defeat the henchmen

Bond villains are always protected and aided in their evil schemes by at least one particularly dangerous henchman. Bond has to fight and defeat the henchman, often several times, before finally confronting and defeating the primary villain.

In user research projects, the villain is the problem that you’re trying to solve (such as a poorly designed application that you’re trying to redesign), and the henchmen are the people and situations that get in the way of solving the problem (such as an IT manager who says the new application has to be created using SharePoint). To solve design problems, you often have to defeat these organizational “henchmen” that cause the problem to exist in the first place. Achieving this coup may require more than interface redesign; it may require changing business processes.

Kill, when necessary

Okay, this one only applies to James Bond. Although it may be tempting at times, unless you’re properly licensed by the British government, please refrain from killing participants or clients.

Sleep with beautiful women

Yeah, sadly, this one too only works for James Bond. There are Bond Girls, but there are no Research Girls (or Guys). It’s better to just keep your mind on the research.

Call in reinforcements

In addition to henchmen, Bond villains often have an army of fighters to defend their hollowed-out-volcano or underwater fortresses. Bond doesn’t attempt to defeat this entire army himself. He calls in British special forces units to fight off the villain’s army, while he focuses on defeating the villain and his main henchmen.

User researchers don’t solve user experience problems alone either. We find problems and recommend solutions, but we need an army of reinforcements (designers, developers, project managers, and clients) to fix the problems. It’s truly a team effort to solve user experience problems. Don’t attempt to go it alone.

Defeat the villain

At the end of the mission, James Bond always defeats the villain, usually surrounded by explosions and massive destruction. But Bond doesn’t always defeat the larger enemy, and some villains (such as SPECTRE leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld) return again in the future.

For a user researcher, “defeating the villain” means recommending solutions to the problems found. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that those recommendations will be implemented correctly or at all. If we simply hand over our research findings and walk away at the end of the research phase, it’s likely that the problems will persist. That’s why you should remain involved throughout a project to fight the user experience villains as they continue to resurface.

Conclusion

By this point, you’ve either realized that user research and espionage have more in common than you originally thought, or you think that I’ve made a big stretch comparing the two. Either way, there’s no denying that we gained a different perspective and new insights about the user research profession. If you’re a user researcher, you may never watch a James Bond movie the same way again.

Jim Ross

Jim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a design research consultant, he has helped such companies as Bank of America, Bloomberg, Comcast, Ford Motor Company, NBC Universal, Oppenheimer Funds, Novartis, Rite Aid, Vanguard, and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. As a User-Centered Designer at JPMorgan Chase, he led the design of large intranet sites, Web sites, and Web applications. Jim has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.

2 comments on this article

  1. Danielle on

    This is an awesome article. Thanks, James, for making UX super sexy.

  2. Sarah on

    Wow. I have never seen my two passions – James Bond and research – woven together in this way. Thank you!