turning users into collaborators


I have a weakness for documentary radio. Listening to it and—very irregularly—making it.

Recently, I started reading Reality Radio. It’s a collection of essays by documentary radio luminaries like Scott Carrier (my fav), The Kitchen Sisters, and Ira Glass.

There are many parallels between UX and documentary. In both, you listen intently to your interview subjects and then hunker down at your computer, cut, edit, and expand, and turn your findings into something compelling.

In radio, it becomes a story.

In UX, it becomes an interface, an experience. Which, I guess, in a way, is a story—there’s a narrative that’s inherent in navigation, right?

In John Biewen’s introduction, he says:

 All documentary work involves collaboration of some sort. At the very least, the producer needs the person on the other side of the microphone.

Where I work, we often talk about collaboration. We have a UX team of 14. That’s a lot of smart, user-focused people to get in a room to discuss ideas—to yell and cheer and provide counterpoints.

Often, discussions with users are relegated to being an auxiliary activity. We know it’s necessary in order to have usable designs (especially given the specificity of our the products we work on), but it’s often thought of as going out and soliciting feedback.

Biewen’s quote is making me rethink how user research should function. We shouldn’t be seeking feedback. Instead, we should be involved in ongoing collaboration with our users. To forge relationships with our users, we should involve them in things like:

  • Design reviews at all stages—including sketches & wireframes
  • Longitudinal studies
  • Brainstorming, concepting, and dreaming sessions

(I’m still thinking this through, reader. Please leave a comment with additional ways we can collaborate with users!)

By showing getting our collaborators our greasy and dirty with us, they’ll understand the evolution of our designs and how their input directs the final product.

Mainly, I believe we should dismantle the façade of formality. Our aim should not be to enter as researchers, but as partners-in-crime. Several authors in Reality Radio discuss visiting their interviewees many, many times and getting an insane amount of tape. Time leads to trust and trust leads to the letting down of guards. That’s when the good stuff spills out. I believe we can do the same thing within UX, through continued collaboration.

This collaboration with users should not be a luxury—it’s a necessity. They’re the voices on the other end of our microphones and without them, all we have is dead air.

04. April 2012 by Michael Seidel
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