Thursday, December 6, 2012

UX Design, Classic Art and Grounded Theory

Lo and Behold: Art meets User Experience Design meets Grounded Theory. At a local brewery no less.

This month's meeting of the UX (User Experience) Speakeasy group featured Julie Morgan from Digitaria sharing a few design case studies using a tool called Optimal Workshop. Standing in front of a large tank, presumably full to the brim with fermenting beer, Julie enthusiastically popped up images of artwork ranging from Van Gogh to Gustav Klimt to Jasper Johns, with a Roman arch tossed in for good measure.

Each of these pieces of art was an analogy to something in the user design research process. A Klimt piece related to music, which related to patterns and the search for harmony in web design. An early version of Van Gogh's Potato Eaters was tied to UX sketching and a later version to the final online design. There was something about a Roman arch in there when discussing Information Architecture. I didn't catch everything she said about it, but now I'm thinking about how one little center stone at the top holds the whole thing up for centuries. Brilliant. It also connects two sides, as in the desire to bridge the gap between users and designers - one of Julie's main points last night.

You see, that is what made the classical art analogies so interesting - they got you thinking in new ways. Looking for connections and inspiration from old to new.

Such as when Grounded Theory popped into my head. As Julie was explaining the different ways a technique called Card Sorting works, and how it can be done with Open or Closed categories, I knew I had heard this before. In Grounded Theory (a well established form of Qualitative Research methodology dating from the 1960s) you can observe people in their natural setting and see what patterns emerge, what categories or activities appear, and eventually develop a behavioral hypothesis from it. This would be a purist form of Grounded Theory. Very much like a UX Designer providing users a stack of cards with labels on them about something they care about, and watching what happens as they discuss them and sort them into categories of their choosing.

Alternatively,with Closed category Card Sorting you can test a user experience hypothesis about something (e.g. "they think this way about web design XYZ...and will behave this way...") using predetermined categories. Use the same cards as in the Open approach, and watch what happens as the users try to put the cards in your categories. Maybe all will go as predicted. Maybe it won't and they push back in some way. Oops, hypothesis not true, users hate this design. Very much like going into a Grounded Theory study with a hypothesis about user behavior, seeing what happens and adjusting codes, taxonomies and theories accordingly.

Inspiration takes place in all phases of these monthly meetings. Somehow, after the formal presentation, while discussing the relationship between art, design and how the commercial world works, I found myself in a deep and meaningful conversation about how to outwit Wireless providers (yes, those organizations that provide service for your mobile phone). There is art and skill to legally outsmarting those guys. Perhaps this reflects the desire to move from Edvard Munch's "The Scream" towards Monet's "The Magpie".

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