UX teams are feeling the pressure from all sides to integrate and innovate as they design user interfaces that must span multiple channels such as the Web—on multiple browsers—smartphones, tablets, game consoles, and kiosks. Airport kiosks, iPods, ATMs, and video game consoles have convinced consumers that every digital experience should be simple, self-contained, and let them achieve their desired goals with just a few taps or clicks. Layer onto all of this the need for integration with social networks and the ability to factor in location, and the number of moving parts increases dramatically. It’s like going from playing chess on a two-dimensional board to playing in three dimensions.
In response to all of the complexity that change has thrust upon us over the last few years, the clients and UX teams for whom I consult are often tempted to zoom out to get a bird’s eye view of the overall landscape. A common solution is to introduce a uniform set of standards and patterns that work across all platforms. This is an understandable attempt to reduce complexity and keep up with the demand for UX design work. It also fits in well with the dominant agile ethos.
But there is a problem. Satisfying this demand is not simply a question of thinking about and producing solutions for more of the same types of UX issues. We need to think about these for sure, but we also face an entirely new set of UX issues. We don’t simply need to design more user interfaces. The existence of similar user experiences on various devices and in different channels influences the patterns that designers employ when designing a particular user interface. We need to design user interfaces that take into account the existence of similar interactions and information on other devices, with the goal of meeting related, but different needs. The theory of relativity is making its way into UX strategy!
As consumers become comfortable with emerging technologies, they are trying new combinations of interactions that help them to optimize the usefulness of these technologies. For example, a woman shopping in a store might scan a dress tag using her iPhone’s camera, view the dress on a virtual model of herself, and post the image to her social network for advice. While waiting for a response, she could save the dress to a shopping list she’s creating on the retailer’s Web site, then check other sources for a similar dress while browsing on her iPad. Later, while watching TV, she could pull up the dress she found earlier. She might find a similar dress elsewhere at a lower price.
Then, she might even tap an Accessories link to see images of coordinated accessories superimposed on the dress her virtual model is wearing. She could then look for various sources of the products making up the whole outfit, balancing price with the reputations of retailers. This isn’t really a far-out scenario; nor is it just more of the same old ecommerce user experience. It’s both more and different.
The most common user research methods—usability testing, A/B testing, and online surveys—are not adequate for fleshing out usage scenarios in the coming multichannel world. In-depth interviews that take place within a user’s context—known as in-context interviews or contextual inquiry—are not sufficient either. They offer a deep, but narrow slice of reality, are too brief, and occur in only one setting. It takes a holistic immersion in the consumers’ world, with all of its devices and complexity of options, by people who understand design, user research, and consumer decision making. This is not research to enable the incremental change of existing user interfaces. It’s about designing an overall user experience that spans multiple, complementary, yet different user interfaces.
One research method I’ve used extensively in the past couple of years to gain a deep, inside look at consumers’ rapidly evolving interactive behaviors is the video diary. Instead of my team of user researchers’ querying consumers about their usage patterns, we empower consumers to produce their own stories, over a period of time, as they use various resources and devices to complete real-life tasks. Using readily accessible digital tools, participants self-document their behavior in the context of activities we are studying.
The Video Diary Protocol
The video diary protocol is different from most user research protocols, because participants lead themselves through it rather than a researcher’s guiding them. To be successful, the protocol—or guide as it’s sometimes called—must be simple to understand, yet very thorough, giving clear instructions for every step. It’s also necessary to formulate the guide to get people to talk about issues that can help you solve the design problems that your client commissioned a research program to address.
We structure our video diary protocols similarly to a printed diary. It’s divided into days, with a large heading at the top of each page for DAY 1, DAY 2, and so on. Below each heading are the questions corresponding to that day. Although, in reality, participants usually complete the diary when it’s most convenient for them to do so, without much regard to the actual days in the diary. Nevertheless, the diary structure helps participants pace themselves and also gives them a clear expectation of how much content they need to produce over the course of the project. Each day in the diary covers two or three related topics and requires between 10 and 20 minutes to fill in.
We begin the diary with easy identification questions—such as asking participants to tell us about themselves and show us their phones or their homes or their clothes closet. Throughout the study, we progress through the days by bringing participants into deeper and deeper reflection on their own behaviors. We continually ask participants to both show us and explain rather than just explain. A talking head can be a very convincing way for design teams and executives to come face to face with the people they are trying to reach—particularly as they discuss real-life activities and their associated barriers and opportunities. However, an hour of just a talking head is more than monotonous; it is a story without context. We want to see how people behave in situations that are as real as we can make them.
Once we have written a protocol that we think will get people to talk about the subject matter we are studying—such as shopping behaviors across multiple devices—we pilot test it with a few people who will not take part in the actual study. We do this for several reasons. First, we want to see how long it will take participants to go through each day’s activities. Second, we want to find any parts of the text that don’t make sense to them. Because we’re so close to the topics and the research goals, our initial drafts tend to be stilted or convoluted in places. Finally, we want to see whether the questions we’re asking really encourage people to give us the types of answers we are looking for—or instead just lead to lots of blah blah blah without any real substance.
Writing a good video diary protocol is tricky. It’s very important to build in flexibility, while at the same time ensuring that participants encounter key questions at a pace that encourages them to be as thorough as possible.
After printing out the video diary guides in full color, we give them to participants as part of a packet of materials. The packet also includes a video camera, a charger, instructions on how to use the camera, a self-addressed box with sufficient postage to return everything to us, and lots of bubble wrap and packing tape.