At some point in our childhood, we constructed things—whether it was a house out of logs or a hat out of origami paper. We have all figured out a way to build stuff, solving problems through play and by trying things out. Sometimes they work. In other cases, they don’t. Often, even when they don’t, we still take away something of value from the experience—be it a lesson on what to do or what not to do.
Researchers working in the instructional-learning field refer to the concept of understanding through play as tinkering. While this might sound somewhat childish—and it sort of is—tinkering has its time and place in fields such as engineering, design, and science, whose focus is the development and refinement of new ideas.
Researchers who study the behavior of tinkering within the context of academic teaching have identified several skills and activities that support tinkering. For example, we manifest our tinkering capabilities through activities such as problem framing, raising questions, and reflection.
These activities might sound familiar to my fellow UX researchers. Is it possible that we are all, in effect, tinkerers? When conducting our UX research, we do exhibit these tinkering skills:
problem framing—We make sure our stakeholders understand the problems our users encounter through problem framing.
raising questions—We get answers to the questions our stakeholders have about users.
reflection—We reflect on all our data from interviews to synthesize key findings.
The frames we create might not always resonate with our stakeholders. The questions we ask might not always be the right ones to ask research participants. We do make mistakes, then undertake course corrections. Tinkering with our research plans—or the lens through which we frame problems—ultimately lets us tell better stories about our users. It certainly sounds as if tinkering is more than just an option for UX researchers, doesn’t it?
The Tinkering Mindset in UX Research
What if tinkering were more than just an activity? What if it were a mindset—that is, a specific way of thinking about how we do our jobs? How can tinkering help us become better UX researchers? Let’s look at some ways in which a tinkering mindset sets us up for success by
enabling us to realize previously unseen possibilities
helping us to build experience and expertise through safe risk-taking
influencing our own mental models and letting us recognize our own biases and assumptions
Tinkering to Realize Possibilities
Through tinkering, we can realize what were previously unseen possibilities. According to the MIT Media Lab researchers Mitchel Resnick and Eric Rosenbaum, tinkering is a playful way of designing and making. Through constant experimentation, we try out various ideas to create something new.
At the very beginning of a task, we might have a specific goal in mind, but through tinkering, we could end up with a completely different one. Children do this unconsciously and very effectively. For example, a child might start out with the goal of building a house out of LEGO bricks, then realize, as he is constructing it, that there aren’t enough bricks to finish a complete house. This constraint forces him to rethink his initial strategy. His goal shifts as he creates his design. While he didn’t think he would end up with a wall, he did as a result of tinkering!
UX-research efforts typically have a set of goals. These goals, unlike in the example I just described, may not shift dramatically as the project moves forward. What is more likely to shift is the research approach. A certain degree of tinkering is necessary to figure out the right approach to meet your research goals. By tinkering with the approach, you could end up satisfying the research goals and then some!
In a recent study that I conducted on an early-phase design for a concept for news, the team was unsure about the appropriate wording of the headline for one of the news options. What wording would best meet the needs of users? We realized that implementing and testing three different, complete prototypes for users to experience would be incredibly time consuming. Having time as our primary constraint forced us to rethink our approach. It was time to tinker!
To simplify things, we isolated language as the sole element for which we were particularly interested in getting feedback. Initially, we had gotten so focused on doing something with a prototype that we totally lost sight of our objective: to understand which set of news-content descriptions resonated best with users. By putting the content onto index cards, divorcing it from the prototype, we saved design and research time and eliminated the unnecessary visual distractions of the prototype.
It took some tinkering with this approach to realize which method would be most effective, but this new approach eventually yielded the insights we needed to make some important design decisions.
Don’t be afraid to rethink your strategy. Do pilot tests so you can tinker with your research approach before doing actual research sessions. Once you’ve established an effective protocol, minimize tinkering to maintain consistency in your data. Acknowledge your constraints and work within them.
Tinkering to Build Experience and Expertise
Through safe risk-taking, tinkering helps us to build experience and expertise. One of the frustrations we all experience when tinkering with something new or unfamiliar is having dead-end moments when we don’t know what to do next. Perhaps, at the beginning of a project, we felt the fire in our belly that we thought would carry us through the entire project, but somehow we lost our way after running into a mental speed bump.
For example, you might reach a point in an origami project when you know the next fold because you’ve done it so many times, but for some reason, the next step eludes you. You’ve lost the steam to move forward and might feel unproductive. It’s at such moments people just want to give up.
Researchers who have studied tinkering behavior suggest that the struggle is a critical part of the learning process. With the right mindset of learning through experimentation, any adversity we face can lead to a new understanding of how to solve a problem. What initially feels unproductive can subsequently become productive if we are able to learn something from such moments. With the wrong mindset, that same tinkering behavior might yield boredom or frustration.
Throughout the process of tinkering, risk-taking is encouraged. In fact, it’s an inherent part of the process. Researchers from various, well-known human-computer interaction (HCI) programs at universities have devised a series of design principles to guide the creation of new, creativity-support tools for engineers, scientists, designers, and students—among others. The intent for these support tools is to encourage tinkering.
These design principles include such things as designing a tool to make it easy enough for users to get started, but that is also powerful enough for developing more sophisticated solutions. The tool should also support a wide range of ways for users to explore their own creations. Rather than giving users a set of predefined templates, the tool should encourage users to explore possibilities.
Another design principle for such a tool is supporting exploration. We are unlikely to know the outcome of a project from the beginning, so taking risks—being able to try something out and fail, then undo our work and learn from it—is critical to understanding our challenges, making progress, and becoming successful.
When rethinking your research approach, don’t be afraid to tinker and take calculated risks by using an approach you’ve never tried before. Your attempts to innovate will probably be rewarded. If you find yourself embroiled in a research-approach snafu, modify your approach to fit your situation and circumstances. Or contact peers in your UX community who might have used the method you’re trying. They’ll often be happy to help!
Tinkering to Create Our Mental Models and Identify Our Biases and Assumptions
Tinkering influences our mental models and enables us to recognize our own biases and assumptions. As a result of our own commitment to thinking about things differently, we could experience breakthroughs in the ways we think about things—even though our original mental model might have been very different, and we initially seemed impervious to other ways of thinking. Our mental model includes any biases we carry—and there could be many! Tinkering opens the mind’s door slightly, allowing us to look at something differently.
A good example of how tinkering changes our way of thinking about something is creating discussion guides for UX research. When crafting a discussion guide, we might spend a great deal of time on question wording. We might tweak the wording a bit to explore a different way of framing a question so it comes across more effectively. To folks unfamiliar with the experience of writing discussion guides for UX-research efforts, this might seem trivial, but it’s not. Writing discussion guides requires a great deal of reflection, feedback, and tinkering. We need to relax our assumptions about the world and how we think it works to get into the mindsets of our users.
For example, a study about understanding an employee’s relationships to help inform the design of a social-networking app for the workplace might require a commitment to thinking about its verbiage differently—more than for a less personal subject such as selecting an Internet service provider.
Starting off a discussion guide with a question such as “Tell me about your parents” might come across as insensitive or ignorant, especially if a research participant was adopted. So make no assumptions. Instead, ask participants: “Tell me about the people you interact with in your life. Let’s start with your life outside of work.” Notice, I didn’t say personal life. A participant might interpret that phrase as insensitive if she thinks I’m asking about her significant other and she’s single and lonely.
As you go through the process of crafting questions for a discussion guide, you’ll likely throw out some of them or reconstitute existing questions so they flow more naturally and are more neutral. Such gradual tinkering with the language of the questions should be expected. Enable colleagues to be a part of the process by asking them to give you feedback. Having others review the wording of questions lets them start questioning their own biases and assumptions in relation to the topic of your research.
Be inclusive when planning your UX research. Incorporate feedback from others. Recognize your biases and ensure they don’t influence or overshadow your project goals.
Approach UX research with a tinkering mindset. You’ll learn new things about yourself and others. Those seemingly unproductive moments of struggle that you might experience could very well be a rite of passage in achieving progress. They could change the way you think about your users and the world around you. Try new and different UX research approaches when it makes sense to do so.
This discussion about tinkering reminds me of a famous quotation from the 32nd US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt:
“It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
Dong, Yihuan, Samiha Marwan, Veronica Catete, Thomas Price, and Tiffany Barnes. “Defining Tinkering Behavior in Open-ended Block-based Programming Assignments. From the Proceedings of the 50th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, SIGCSE ’19, March 2019.
Mader, Angelika, and Edwin Dertien. (2016). “Tinkering as Method in Academic Teaching.” (PDF) International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education, September 2016. Retrieved July 26, 2019.
Michael has worked in the field of IT (Information Technology) for more than 20 years—as an engineer, business analyst, and, for the last ten years, as a UX researcher. He has written on UX topics such as research methodology, UX strategy, and innovation for industry publications that include UXmatters, UX Mastery, Boxes and Arrows, UX Planet, and UX Collective. In Discovery, his quarterly column on UXmatters, Michael writes about the insights that derive from formative UX-research studies. He has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Binghamton University, an M.B.A. in Finance and Strategy from NYU Stern, and an M.S. in Human-Computer Interaction from Iowa State University. Read More