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A FOMO-Fighting Recap of our Favorite 2019 UXR Events

A quick "get-up-to-date" summary of what UXRs discussed last year (and a few handy links so you can stream anything you might've missed). 

Words by Bryn Pernot, Maggie Schurr, and Ben Wiedmaier; Visuals by Allison Corr

This year, as a UX community, the stakes felt high.

At conferences big and small in 2019, we wrestled with some pretty heavy responsibilities.

In a few words: combatting the abuse of data privacy, understanding the potential threats that come alongside AI, uncovering obstacles to reaching vulnerable communities, and making our stakeholders care about these challenges as much as we do.

In more words: read our recap below. 

EPIC—Providence, RI

Agency is more crucial than ever

This year’s theme focused on agency. More specifically, what it means to have agency in an “increasingly automated world.”

From several panels to the keynote by Sareeta Amrute, this year’s EPIC was a masterclass on how businesses and brands should rethink the way they approach the issues of choice in a world where AI and machine learning dominate our designs.

The good news is human agency isn’t going away with these advancements. Instead it’s becoming more fluid and adapting. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider our users’ agency when approaching design.

Tech colonialism impacts us all

Director of Research at Data & Society Sareeta Amrute gave the keynote lecture on tech colonialism and how AI and other algorithmic decision-making processes have negatively impacted underrepresented communities all over the world.

Though we’ve come to think of colonialism as the physical practice of taking control of and occupying a region or people, tech now acts as a colonial force in the world today. Like it’s “traditional” predecessor, technology can be exploitative, extractive, and damaging.

Amrute’s solution is for us to interrogate what agency means for our users and products. We need to consider how our products, helpful they may be to some, take away agency of others.

One great example she used was in redesigning LaGuardia Airport where they opted to create an entirely new airport in front of the old one. When we consider how we build and revise our products, we need to consider the possibility of starting from scratch.

It’s time to rethink privacy

It’s no big surprise: users value their privacy.

What is surprising is how often (and easily) companies lose their users’ trust when it comes to privacy. This is especially so in the tech industry where large amounts of data is being collected practically every second.

Part of the problem is that many view privacy as a binary (i.e. you’re either private or you’re not). Instead, we need to remember that the definitions of privacy are more fluid. What works for one organization might not work for another. As such, you need to examine your own company, industry, and products in order to provide the right level of privacy and transparency for your users.

Organizations also need to examine how much data they’re collecting, and really consider how long they need to retain it, how they’re using it, and the agency users have in owning it. The answers to those questions will ultimately guide organizations to a better system of privacy for their users.

Videos from EPIC 2019 are available to stream here.

FYI: We created a completely free report examining the shifting demands and roles of user researchers. Download: Moves to Modern Research

People Nerds—San Francisco, CA

The future is now (and we need to step up)

Machine learning and AI have created a whole new world of opportunities for what we can build, and who will be doing the building.

Maybe, as our panel on the role of modern researchers discussed, we’ll all be expected to code. Maybe, in contrast, we’ll grow to rely on an increasingly niche and capable subset of subject matter experts.

Regardless, these new tools lead to a new set of responsibilities.

Perhaps Vanessa Whatley, UXR for Google put it best: “Machine learning and AI are really taking off. What we still don’t do a good job at is anticipating the unintended consequences. And that leads to a lot of systemic challenges being magnified and a lot of vulnerable populations being impacted. We’re playing with people’s lives, so we really need to do a much better job of being intentional.”

Bottom line: As UXRs, we need the technical literacy advocate for our users going into the future.

Tell your story

Keynote speaker, journalist, and host of the Serial podcast Sarah Koenig shared methods for connecting with her audience through the power of vulnerability. Compelling stories resonate because they lean into human moments—and human moments can feel “non-journalistic,” or uncertain. In order to make Serial the success that it ended up being (5 million downloads in the first 6 weeks!), she needed to rethink her role as a journalist. The same can be said for UXRs. How can we bring that sense of empathy and vulnerability to our users? When is it better to be vulnerable than to be “unbiased?”

You can read a full People Nerds San Francisco recap here and get updates for the 2020 event here.

UXPA International—Scottsdale, AZ

Seek "lane-breaking" opportunities

How we mix, meld, and mingle approaches, tactics, strategies was core to the discussions at UXPA. Alongside the omnipresent theme of “morality in AI,” researchers debated the role of storytelling in design, bringing design principles to more business areas, and bringing stakeholders from other business areas into design.

Lanes can be useful to on-time project completion, onboarding team members, and just plain old sanity-keeping. Sometimes, however, assessing new allows for the speedy execution, inspires scalable innovation, and helps us to address our trickiest research questions.

Pay attention to who might you be missing

UXPA also highlighted the importance of users at the margins: the elderly, differently-abled, and very young. As accessibility and inclusive design principles are burgeoning, so too is the widening of the research aperture. Who is your product, service, or experience excluding, and how might your business grow by considering—and designing for—them in your next sprint or design iteration?

The biggest roadblocks might be implementational

It’s time we take a “tree falls in a forest” approach to UXR. Meaning, research is only as good as it’s heard and acted upon. Increasingly, our success as researchers is defined by how well we get the attention of our stakeholders and get our reports read. dscout’s Jaymie Wahlen sat down with researchers Julie Schiller (Google), Jeanine Livdahl (Target), and Yasmine Khan (Even) to discuss some actionable solutions they had to overcome communication roadblocks.

Many of the talks from UX Y’all 2019 are available to stream on their Youtube channel.

UX STRAT—Boulder, CO

Stakeholders: we really need them

Many talks at UX STRAT focused on the need (imperative!) to weave in stakeholders throughout the research and design processes. It engenders empathy, it elevates the need, and it showcases value. In particular, many of these folks mentioned how valuable it was to bring stakeholders into the field with them. If research is to have a bigger, more sustained role at organizations of all size, weaving stakeholders in seemed to be a very compelling (and effective) first step.

In addition, presenters often raised the notion that stakeholders are not the enemy of design and research. Many discussions implicitly raised the specter of the "us vs. them" inherent in the stakeholders/researcher relationship. Many voiced concern about the adversarial approach as one that will, in the long run, harm the positive intentions of UX. Some attendees wondered on the Slack community if UX was/is the enemy. However it's framed, stakeholders are on the minds of UX researchers. UXers want to conduct more strategic work; Stakeholders want concepts tested. This duality continues to frustrate.

Our strategic hunger is an asset

Many UXers are growing weary of "just" testing concepts, mockups, etc. They're hungry for higher-altitude, strategic, and vision-setting work. This aligns with many of the methods they discussed interest in exploring: ethnography, persona, journey, and mapping work, which don't typically align with very tactical (e.g., A/B testing) work. UXers are growing in their expertise, and expectations are elevating among and within this community. They yearn for more complex, company-focusing questions and work.

Stream video highlights from UX STRAT Bolder here.

MWUX—Grand Rapids, MI

Everyone can do research; anyone can design

A core theme of MWUX was our capacity to educate and empower anyone in our companies to better consider the user. Keynote speaker Jeff Veen highlighted the core tenants of a more creative company culture—primarily, how we can encourage company-wide psychological safety and empower our coworkers to fail and learn. Elizabeth Benker outlined the steps she took at ZS to democratize research responsibly—enabling her team to conduct studies at scale, without jeopardizing the quality of their findings. Eric S. Thomas reminded us of the role our personal identities play in design work, and how genuine innovation comes from building collaborative space for many identities.

Design should do good for everyone

MWUX reminded us that researchers have the opportunity, and responsibility, to be an ethical mouthpiece at our companies; the products and services that will define our future depend on it. That means being conscious of bias in voice user interfaces, as suggested by Charles Hannon. That means accounting for data privacy and helping our users escape “attention casinos,” as Lauren Liss advocates. And that means having an awareness of a “benign” their potential harm; Eva Penzey Moog broke down how modern tech products can help perpetuate domestic violence.

The talks from MWUX 2019 are available to stream here.

Is your research platform gender inclusive—or does it push a binary? We took a look at how we asked our users about gender and found 4 crucial principles for any company to move beyond the binary.

UX Y'all—Durham, NC

Research who you’re researching for, first

The impact of UX was on full display at UX Y'all, with presentations offering strategies for collaboration, deliverable format, dissemination throughout and org., and looping in your user community. UXY highlighted that despite a wealth of approaches, methods, team types, and new corners of organizations doing UX research and design, the visibility of its impact—the "so what?"—still bedevils many practitioners.

TL;DR: Conduct research on your stakeholders before recruiting a single participant. Knowing more about the motivational structures and inclinations of the folks making decisions can go a long way when it's time to design, field, and analyze.

Many of the talks from UX Y’all 2019 are available to stream here.

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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