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Learning Complex Subject Matter

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
June 21, 2021

During your user-research sessions, have you ever suddenly thought to yourself, “What the heck is this person talking about!?” I hate to admit it, but there have been times when I’ve come to that realization.

This rarely occurs on projects involving products to which you can easily relate—such as online shopping, banking, or travel booking. However, when you’re doing research on complex domains—for example, observing the work tasks of investment managers, accountants, doctors, or scientists—it can be difficult to get up to speed on the subject matter quickly. Sometimes you must sit through several sessions before something clicks and you begin really to understand what the participants are doing and talking about.

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Learning a project’s subject matter is especially challenging for UX research consultants, who work on projects with various clients, in different industries and domains. Often, when a project begins, you won’t have much time to learn the subject matter. It’s understandable that clients are sometimes skeptical that a consultant can come in and understand their business in a short time.

What should you do to prepare for conducting user research to inform the design of complex products—for example, the user interface of an electron microscope, an application that tracks biomedical-research studies, energy grid–monitoring software, or a product for some other complex domain? How can you formulate appropriate questions, understand participants’ answers, and comprehend what you’re observing? In this column, I’ll provide some advice on how to learn complex subject matter quickly.

Quickly Do Some Initial Research

Before the project-kickoff meeting, it’s always a good idea to learn a bit about the client’s company, their product, and the project for which they want to conduct research. However, when a project involves a very complex or unfamiliar domain, spend some additional time learning the basics of the subject matter by doing some research online. At a minimum, take a look at the company’s Web site to learn about what they do. For complex projects, you should do some additional high-level reading about their product and domain.

Set Clients’ Expectations Up Front

During the kickoff meeting, set your clients’ expectations regarding how much or how little you know about the subject matter. This prevents their overestimating your knowledge, which can lead to misunderstandings. It also frees you up to ask questions, without worrying that you’ll be asking dumb questions that reveal your lack of knowledge.

Clarify Who the Experts Are

Make it clear to your clients that you’re not an expert in their subject matter and won’t ever become an expert. That’s not your role. Your clients and stakeholders in their organization are the experts on their organization’s needs, their products, and their domain. The product’s users are experts on their own needs. You’re an expert in UX research and design, so your role is to learn enough—from both stakeholders and users—to design an effective solution that meets both groups’ needs.

Clarify that it is not necessary for you to become an expert in the subject matter. You just need to learn enough to plan and understand the research. However, you should be able to rely on your clients and research participants to fill in the gaps in your understanding.

Research the Subject Matter in Greater Depth

After the kickoff meeting, quickly learn as much as you can about the client’s subject matter. You do need at least a base level of knowledge to plan your research, ask research participants the right questions, and understand what you hear and observe during the sessions. Take small steps at first, progressing from getting a high-level overview of the subject matter to learning more detailed information. Beware: trying to learn too much, too fast can lead to information overload.

Ask your clients for and read any documentation they can provide about their business, their users, and the product you’re researching. This documentation can include training and support materials, surveys, personas, customer-journey maps, market research, and reports from user-research studies. At first, you might find understanding this material difficult, but the more you learn, the more the material makes sense. This documentation becomes more and more useful as the project progresses, so save it and refer back to it as necessary.

Get a Demo of the System

If there is an existing application or physical product, ask your client to give you a demo of how it works and show you the tasks that users currently perform using it. Record these learning sessions so you can review them later. While observing a client or stakeholder performing tasks isn’t the same as observing actual users, it can help you become familiar with the product and users’ tasks, so you’ll have a better understanding of what’s happening during the actual research sessions.

Try Out the System Yourself

Once you’ve gotten a product demo, get access to the system so you can play around with it yourself. Go through the tasks that users perform to familiarize yourself with the workflows. Doing this could help you formulate good questions. Plus, it helps you to better understand what you’ll be seeing during the research sessions.

Conduct Stakeholder Interviews

Conduct interviews with key stakeholders in the client company to gather information about their business needs, their users, the existing product or system, and the subject matter. If possible, conduct individual interviews with stakeholders rather than group sessions. These stakeholders all have the same high level of knowledge about the subject matter, so when you bring a group of stakeholders together, they’ll naturally use their internal jargon and talk far above your level of understanding. During individual interviews, stakeholders are more conscious of your lack of knowledge and understanding and adjust the discussions accordingly.

Of course, it takes longer to conduct individual interviews than a single group meeting, but you’ll benefit from the repetition of asking the same questions and hearing similar answers from each stakeholder. For example, if you ask the first stakeholder to explain a complex topic, you might not fully understand the answer. But that’s okay because you’ll gradually increase your understanding as each additional stakeholder answers the same question.

Set Participants’ Expectations

Similar to your educating your clients about your role and knowledge, it’s important that you make sure the participants understand that you have only a beginner’s knowledge of their field and their tasks. Set the expectation that they’re the experts, and you’re the beginner who is learning from them. So they’ll need to take things slow and try to avoid talking above your level of knowledge. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask them to think of you as a new employee who is learning a job from a veteran employee.

Discuss Tasks Before Observing Them

Before participants begin demonstrating their tasks, ask them to give you an overview of what they’ll be doing and describe how the tasks fit into their larger work process. Getting this context up front can help you better understand what you observe and hear during the tasks.

Ask Stupid Questions

It’s often difficult for experts to remember what it was like to be a novice, so they might not realize that they’re talking above your level of understanding. You might need to remind them that you have only a limited understanding of the subject matter and let them know if they’re getting too far above your level. A good way of doing this is to ask what may seem like stupid questions. Such questions remind participants that they need to slow down and speak at your level.

Learn Through Repetition

Fortunately, when you conduct user research, you observe many participants performing the same tasks. So it’s okay if you don’t understand everything each participant is saying and doing. Often, you won’t understand everything that’s going on during the first few sessions, but that’s okay. Your knowledge increases with each subsequent session. For projects that involve complex topics, recruit more participants than you usually would for simpler projects. This ensures that you get enough repetition to build your understanding.

Record Sessions and Review the Recordings

It’s always a good idea to record user-research sessions, even though, for most projects, you won’t need to watch all the recordings. When doing research on simpler topics, you can often take sufficient notes during the sessions, so you won’t need to spend much time reviewing the recordings.

However, when you’re conducting research on complex topics, it’s very helpful to watch all the recordings and type up more detailed notes. During your research sessions, you must divide your attention between listening, observing, taking notes, thinking of your next question, and maintaining good rapport with the participants. Therefore, it’s helpful to watch the videos and experience each session a second time, when you can focus more of your attention on what participants are doing and saying. I often find that things I didn’t understand during the sessions become much more understandable when I get the repetition of seeing the sessions a second time on video.

Watching session videos takes a lot of time, so make sure that your project plan provides extra time for the analysis phase.

Reassess and Adjust Between Sessions

When you’re doing research on complex topics, schedule time between sessions to review what you’ve learned so far, reassess what you still need to learn, and make adjustments to your discussion guide. Sometimes it helps to schedule a day of analysis between each two days of sessions. On the analysis days, review your video recordings, type up your notes, reflect on your findings, list the things you still don’t understand, and adjust your questions or the tasks that you need to observe. Having these analysis days ensures that you have the opportunity to learn what you don’t yet understand during the remaining sessions.

Confirm Your Understanding

Once you’ve completed your research sessions, you may find that you have some additional questions as you begin analyzing your notes. You might discover some gaps in your knowledge, concepts you’re not sure you understand correctly, or other questions you wish you had asked. To clarify and confirm your understanding, ask your clients and other stakeholders your follow-up questions. If necessary, ask your research participants these questions as well—perhaps through an email message or follow-up interviews.

It’s Okay to Be Wrong

If you find that you’ve based some of your findings and recommendations on incorrect assumptions, that’s okay. You’re not an expert. So make it clear to your clients that, while you’ve based your findings and recommendations on your increasing knowledge, you may occasionally be wrong, and that you would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with your clients and leverage their expertise to improve your understanding and refine and clarify your research report.

Conclusion: We’re All Experts Working Together

Throughout my career in User Experience, I’ve always worked in consulting because I love the variety of working on very different projects, in a variety of domains. However, my biggest challenge has always been learning about new, complex domains. At the beginning of a project with a new client, it’s perfectly okay to admit that you lack an expert’s knowledge of their subject matter. By working together with your clients, stakeholders, and participants, you can continue learning throughout your user research and discover how to design a solution that meets the needs of your clients and their users. 

Senior UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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