Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Guest Post : Stroll On Over There

There is a terrific organization called Global Tech Women. I hope to write more about them here soon. Meanwhile, I invite you to stroll on over, check them out, and read my guest post about women in high-tech and fashion on their blog. This new piece is a follow up to an earlier post that you might recall.

Friday, September 21, 2012

UX Without Psychology?

"You can talk about behavior without knowing anything about psychology" 

according to Christopher Konrad, one of the panelists at the UX and Psychology meeting I have been discussing in the last few posts. Konrad has a significant background in  software for several large companies we all know and love (or hate, depending upon your personal taste) such as Microsoft, Intuit and Sandia National Labs. He also has a degree in Psychology and runs his own design firm (suitably named Konrad) so you can't just write off his comment without considering what it might mean.

No doubt Konrad likes to be provocative. He made another point by holding up a photograph of a user restrained in a chair with an eye tracker covering their face. Provocative gets you attention and if handled skillfully can make you think critically.

There is Psychology and then there is psychology. Konrad has critiques of both. Capital "P" Psychology can be, under the worst scenario, a deadening pileup of statistics and controlled studies divorced from reality. When it comes to understanding what users do in their lives, what they care about, the type of Psychology Konrad takes issue with is a waste of time.

psychology (lower case "p") refers to pop psychology. Inferring what Konrad meant by pop psychology, I take this to be exemplified in its worst guise through a certain genre of self-help books ("Break All Your Bad Habits in Six Days"). These kinds of books, software and the motivational speakers that promote them make me ill because they prey on gullible people. When it comes to professional UX work of any sort I cannot but agree with Konrad - there is no place for pop psychology.

Many people don't know what "psychology" (upper or lower case) means, as was evident by the enthusiastic audience discussion following Konrad's remarks. Not everyone agreed with him, but some did.

One of the other speakers, Matt Kelly, provided an excellent balance. Kelly is a human factors researcher at Pacific Science and Engineering whose work relies heavily on traditional psychological research methodologies. He gave some excellent examples of where collecting and analyzing formal data can make the difference between saving lives or losing them. He stressed the "...importance of not getting a 60% fail rate on mission critical applications - something might kill you".

If something might kill you, you want to make sure your application has all its ducks in a row in terms of how it and users interact. I couldn't help thinking about the term "collateral damage" which has come to stand in for people dying or getting severely injured. If running formal experiments and tests will save lives, power to Psychology.

Can you study behavior without Psychology? It depends what you mean by studying behavior and by Psychology.

Can you "do" UX without Psychology? 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Wondering if Users Have Bad Instincts

(Not the quoted audience member!)
"We live in a synthetic world. What we think is commonsense may not be common sense". This was another audience comment at the industry panel on UX and Psychology sponsored by the San Diego UX Speakeasy group.

I have heard and read endless commentaries and articles about our modern technology-enhanced culture - good, bad, indifferent. Almost everyone seems to agree to some extent that modern society is too cut off from the natural world. Sitting on one's behind in front of a computer or TV for hours on end isn't healthy for an endless set of well documented reasons. There is an entire movement to try and counter what has come to be called Nature Deficit Disorder. The movement was started by Richard Louv who posits that it is seriously problematic not to get into the outdoors and connect with living breathing ecology - the less we do it, the less our children do it, the more mental and physical problems result.

The audience member was trying to say that our common sense understanding of things, including software and hardware, is based upon instincts evolved for a non-synthetic world. i.e. the Natural World. Which we have little regular contact with. He claimed our instincts are based upon interactions with non-natural things. To be blunt, our instincts are wrong.

There is an important psychological hole to the argument that our instincts are purely evolutionarily evolved and not at all influenced by our present lives and environment. Plenty of research would yes, there are evolutionary instincts and yes, there are instincts based upon our experiences. As this is not an academic publication, I'll spare you the references.

Running with the theory a bit more though: What would this mean for psychology and those of us in high-tech who work with users? Well, it could mean that you don't trust your users. Their instincts about what they want and need are inaccurate. Hence, the developer/designer knows best. "You may not like the way this feature works, but trust me, it is in your best interest to get used to it". User adapts to the system, system does not adapt to user. I'm not comfortable with that approach at all. It's egotistical, don't you think?

Anyway, why would this line of reasoning only apply to users? Developers and designers are also evolved home sapiens, who, following this line of argument, also possess instincts and cognition based upon a non-synthetic world. Thus, according to the theory, what they perceive and believe would be no more accurate than their users. Different perhaps, but just as flawed. I find this so fatalistic (and frightening actually): we might as well all throw in the towel.

No one on the industry panel was a proponent of the "our instincts are wrong" argument. In fact, Gema Almilli, an Experience Planner at Red Door Interactive, made a very strong point of talking about the importance of providing users with desirable, engaging and delightful experiences. Delightful doesn't come from being compelled to go against all your instincts. Gema even drew upon the notion of game-ification: what are the psychological principles that make a game enjoyable? What causes people to connect with their online activity and want to go further? How can these psychological principles be extended beyond the world of games?

There is a middle path. We, users, developers, designers, do spend far too much time (imo) disconnected from the natural world. Our psychological health can only improve with time spent reconnecting to the environment. We are surely influenced and deceived by things we see on TV and the Internet. However, instincts usually have something important to tell us if we listen to them. Our mind is trying to tell us something - hey you! hey!  Someone on LinkedIn, commenting on my previous post, claimed that it was impossible to "become" the user. Not sure I agree with that either, but in both that case and this situation, working hard to understand and validate the users' perceptions is the right way to go.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Where is the Psychology in UX?

 "Isn't what Google does just computer science? (or statistics?). Where is the psychology?"

asked a member of the audience at the panel discussion on User Experience (UX) and Psychology Wednesday night. I moderated the panel of 4 lively industry speakers and boy, did everyone get into it.

I suspected on several occasions that we could have an entire discussion in response to the question "What is psychology?". Surprising, considering that many of the people present work in media that effects user reactions, points of view, and perspectives. Perhaps not surprising. The audience contained a wealth of perspectives including graphic artists, developers, interaction designers, researchers, and human factors engineers.

Nonetheless, if I hadn't been standing up I might have fallen off my chair when that question was asked. As it was, you could have seen my eyes pop so wide open they shoved my eyebrows well up under the hairline. Google Search is ubiquitous - do people think there is no ulterior motive behind how Google designs its search engine display and the results? Or that the effectiveness of Google Search happens purely through algorithmic means? Heck no. The people at Google are out to make money as well as provide a service. That doesn't happen by accident. It happens when you understand your user and interact with them in such a manner that they engage with you and ... eventually do what you want.

Phil Ohme, Principle Interaction Designer from Intuit and one of our panel speakers, made that point when he discussed the need to get in users' shoes and sometimes use that understanding to lead them down a path they might not initially want to go. As he put it, "if you lead them down the path everyone wins in the end". This of course, was in reference to working on accounting services and software. As he said, it is Good to Ask the Users, Better to Watch the Users, but Best to Become the Users. How does Phil become a tax accountant? By volunteering as a tax return preparer in a program sponsored by the IRS for low income populations. Ok, that isn't all he does to understand the experience of an accountant, but I was impressed by this level of dedication.

In the next post I have many more interesting (and occasionally outrageous) things to share from this panel meeting. I'm also going to come back to this question of what psychology is in the minds of a commercially oriented audience. It was at the same time mind blowing, fascinating and exciting to listen to what people thought or implied they thought about the role of psychology in UX. (Yes, some thought it played no role at all. Or that it should not play any role at all).

Hop on over to Google's Search Engine and type in something. You choose. What do you get back? What do you think? What is the next thing you do? Ask your pal in the next chair to do the same thing on their computer. What do they get back? What does she or he think? What is the next thing she or he does?

Before I write anything else I MUST mention that this meeting was also a celebration of the one year anniversary of the San Diego User Experience "Speakeasy" group. It has been a great year. I had no idea what to expect when I joined but every time I go I learn something, meet great people and have a good time.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Why Would Anyone Say That?

"Psychology has run its course in user experience". Someone relayed that statement (possibly paraphrased) to me today as having been said by someone who works in .... I'm not quite sure.

It doesn't matter where this person works, it is the idea that matters! What could that possibly mean? My colleague and I kicked around a few ideas.

Perhaps "we" (the collective "we", which by the way does not include the individual "me") have said all there is to say about the application of psychology to interactive design, web design, mobile app design. Perhaps there is nothing new to say. The underlying principles have been hashed out and now it is just a matter of applying them. Is that what the person meant by "has run its course"?

Or perhaps we don't need psychology any more? Is that what the person meant?

Is the statement's author bored, or jaded, or perhaps bored and jaded? I could speculate on that:

Perhaps she or he comes from a cognitivist background and is sick to death of numbers and statistics and timing how long things take, and where people look, and how fast they respond, and drawing little colorful graphs that may or may not have any meaning in a practical setting? [Cue: Yawn... ]

Or...perhaps she or he comes from a background in affective psychology and is sick and tired of trying to intuit the deep inner angst or elation behind barely discernible vocalizations? [Cue: Scream!]

There must be other interpretations as well. BUT WHAT? As someone with plenty of background and opinions in this area, I'm dying to kick this one around some more. If only there was an opportunity...

Heh Heh. Next week I will be moderating a panel of people who have something to say about psychology in UX at the monthly meeting of the San Diego UX Speakeasy group. As moderator I am in a position of power! (of a very limited nature and of short duration). Aside from taking steps to see that our panelists and audience have an interactive experience, I think I'm going to try and slide this question into the conversation.

Unless someone else brings it up first.

Does the statement about psychology having run its course in UX sound bizarre to you? Do you even have any idea what psychology in UX is all about? If not, then clearly you want to find out. If yes, then you know this is a perfect question for inciting an audience. Of course now the cat is out of the bag. All the better.