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The UX Evolution

Former UXPA International president Jen Romano-Bergstrom on the industry’s rapid growth, biggest challenges, and where researchers should be doing even more to break down boundaries.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

If UX ever develops an equivalent of the entertainment industry’s coveted EGOT, Jen Romano-Bergstrom might be the oddsmakers’ favorite to take it home. Romano-Bergstrom, from 2016 through 2018 the president of UXPA International, knows the field from every angle. As a practitioner she’s logged time in UX Research at Facebook, Instagram, and the US Census Bureau, and is currently the Director of User Experience Research at Bridgewater Associates, the country’s largest hedge fund. She’s worked extensively in UX education, from teaching graduate-level courses to one-on-one mentoring and coaching with people looking to break into the field. She’s written two books on research methodologies and lectured about UX all over the world. Oh, and she has a Ph.D. in Applied/Experimental Psychology. Just let us know where to fill out that UXEGOT ballot.

dscout sat down with Romano-Bergstrom to talk about where UX has been, where it’s going, and the biggest shifts the field needs to make to get to the next level.

dscout: What’s the biggest challenge facing researchers right now?

Jen: The growth of the field—of UX and research as disciplines. Which is a good problem to have, right? I’m seeing that in all three of my roles—at UXPA, Bridgewater Associates, and as a UXR coach—there are a tremendous number of people coming into the field right now. But on the other side of that, companies are looking to build in-house teams that can hit the ground running. And to do that they’re looking for more seasoned people, which there are fewer of. So there's a bit of a disconnect and it's difficult on both sides at the moment. But I think we’ll bypass it soon. The field will reach a point of maturation. There are so many opportunities popping up education-wise, and soon a lot of the people who are junior won’t be so junior. The field is just so new. It wasn’t that long ago that usability turned into UX, and that a lot of people coming into UX were coming from academia. I think we forget that.

You mentioned a big problem from the corporate side, which is trying to grow an internal team when the market is weighted toward more junior-level talent. What are companies doing to mitigate that?

Some invest in one-on-one coaching; I’m working with a number of companies in that capacity right now. Or they offer educational programs like conferences or short courses or webinars. Usually, it’s not about people getting formal degrees. Companies want an employee who can hit the ground running, and a formal education may not necessarily get you to that place. The business world is so different from academia—the stakeholders are different, the pace is different. In a corporate environment, you no longer have two weeks to write up a report. We think about projects in a matter of days now, not weeks. That’s happening everywhere, not just in the tech space. Everything moves so quickly, and you still have to conduct really good research in those tightened time frames and get those findings to the team very quickly. Even for seasoned researchers, that's a hard thing to adapt to, especially if they’re coming from a field like academia that had a slower pace. And even if you know the right methods to use and the right questions to ask to accomplish project goals, you may not understand the nuances of how and why you’d want to communicate those findings in different ways. Different stakeholders and clients require different approaches and want different levels of analysis and reporting. It takes time to learn that, even if you have an advanced education.

Everything moves so quickly, and you still have to conduct really good research in those tightened time frames and get those findings to the team very quickly. Even for seasoned researchers, that’s a hard thing to adapt to…

Jen Romano-Bergstrom

There’s been a lot of discussion about how the field is adapting to a faster pace and adopting agile or tactics like design sprints—but how findings are communicated also seems to be shifting dramatically. Is there a sweet spot between taking several weeks to write up a report and live tweeting out your results?

It really depends on the project and the goal. With foundational research, you need more time to figure out who your users are and what their needs are, what problems they have that you’re trying to solve. That will take a lot longer. It requires casting a wider net, talking to a more diverse group of people, and really making sure that you’re learning what you’re aiming to learn. It’s a lot different from trying to figure out if a new product design will work for existing users.

Ultimately, knowing the best way to present your findings comes down to knowing your audience. We make recommendations based on who the user is when it comes to research, and it’s the same thing when it comes to communicating our work. You need to know what your audience wants to consume. If they’re really just interested in the little nuggets of insight and information, give them those nuggets. I tend to do a mix. I'll give a weekly update via email, literally bullet points of the findings from the week before. I’m still doing reports in slides, and have different Slack channels where I’ll post insights. And I still do readouts, so depending on who's involved in the project, I might just do a big readout and invite everyone who’s interested. When it comes to disseminating findings the most important thing is that your audience actually consume it. You have to figure out the best delivery method for your user and deliver it.

Because the team is moving forward regardless.

Right. They're not sitting around waiting for the research results to build the product. If you're not getting them those little nuggets along the way because you want your report to be perfect, you run the risk that by the time you do give them the findings, they'll have moved beyond that stage. That’s the worst thing that can happen—if they don’t get your feedback until it’s too expensive, or too close to launch, or after the product is fully built and fully functioning. Because chances are then that they won’t make the changes. Whatever you can share with the team while they still care—that’s the best approach.

Jen is a featured speaker at People Nerds San Francisco in May! Learn More

It seems a lot of people are turning to multimedia to try and solve for that pain point, because it’s a direct way to show someone exactly what a user is experiencing.

Definitely. I heard recently from a colleague that she was using audio in this capacity, which is something I’d like to try. I had this epiphany the other day—it’s sort of like the power of radio before there was TV. Like using a mini-podcast to present findings to stakeholders.

Obviously there are things you can’t do with audio, like look at how a user engages with an interface or show their facial expressions. But it can help make your point in a strong way if there’s something about the video that’s distracting, like a strange angle or bad lighting.

Giving someone the actual voice of the user in your presentation can be very, very powerful.

Jen Romano-Bergstrom

Sometimes it can also be difficult to integrate video into a presentation if you’re moving quickly or in a time crunch—though luckily remote tools like dscout are getting better and better and making it a lot easier. Back in the day you had to do a lot more legwork to get the right clips, write down the timestamps and fast forward, etc etc. Now it’s much easier to pull what you need and assemble everything together. And giving someone the actual voice of the user in your presentation can be very, very powerful.

Speaking of what you can get from video, you’ve also studied eye-tracking quite a bit.

Eye-tracking can be helpful if you’re looking to understand where someone’s attention is focused. Imagine you have several versions of an interface with one element that's in a different place, and you want to know which placement means people will see it the fastest. Or in which version it feels the most distracting. The advantage in using eye-tracking in those cases is that you can make sure that you’re collecting data when someone’s attention is on your product.

That comes up a lot in survey research—especially if you’re asking complex questions, where people have to think about their responses. If you’re eye-tracking, you can tell if someone’s attention is actually on the screen. For example, I’m talking to you right now, but I’m also looking out the window. I'm not really looking for anything, because my attention is on the conversation, so it's not path-driven, but I'm not actually paying attention to what I'm looking at. Eye-tracking is becoming more common because the equipment has become more affordable, so more people are doing it. And I’m seeing more of an explosion of qualitative methods and looking patterns, as opposed to the more quantitative methods, like how long someone was looking at an element or how long it took someone to see something.

Everyone’s trying to find the sweet spot between qual and quant.

That’s what’s emerging. There are still a lot of folks who are strictly qual. Part of me is surprised by that, because I think quant isn’t as difficult as people think it is. Maybe it’s an area for collaboration. Let’s do a survey and our own analysis of UX research. For those who aren’t doing quant, why not? What’s the gap about? Do people think it’s complicated and scary, or are they afraid of doing it incorrectly? I’m not sure.

Speaking of things that people can find complicated and scary—let’s talk about AI. It feels inevitable that we’ll soon see more and more applications for it in research—someone has probably invented some new kind of AI application since we’ve been talking. Does it still feel like a scary unknown, or do you think people are starting to see it as a helpful tool?

It's definitely become more prominent and more popular in recent years. But honestly, I’m not sure why we’re not hearing even more about it. We’re still not seeing a lot of data on it—it’s not being covered very much at conferences or in trade publications, which is interesting. I don’t know if people are looking at it and just not sharing their findings, or what. We know, based on the products we interact with and help design teams understand, that AI is beyond being up and coming. It’s in our lives. But we aren’t hearing about it as much as I might have expected in the research world, and I’m not sure why.

We need to predict more. Think about not only what people are doing with a product now, but how they’ll interact with in the future.

Jen Romano-Bergstrom

So beyond AI, what are the big developments on the horizon for the field in the next five years?

I think we need focus even more on pushing the boundaries of the products we’re currently working on. We need to predict more. Think about not only what people are doing with a product now, but how they’ll interact with in the future. That means thinking about other products in people’s environments and how they’re using them and how that might relate to our work. I’d like to see the field being even more innovative and creative in that way. This is occurring anyway around us, so I think we need to do our part and push the field and our stakeholders in that way.

Remote is obviously the direction the field is going in. The days of sitting down in a formal lab with one-way glass are really a thing of the past. So people who aren’t doing a lot of remote research need to be thinking about how to integrate it into their roadmap and objectives.

And collaboration. I think it's important to have different perspectives in the room. It’s good that people are coming into the field from so many different backgrounds right now, because they're bringing in different perspectives. My background is in cognitive psychology. If I brought in a bunch of cognitive psychologists to work with me on something, we may all have a certain way of looking at how people interact with things and how they perceive the world. But what we really need is to have different hypotheses about the way things work. That’s something I’m seeing now across the board at a number of places, the desire to build those well-rounded, diverse teams with people from different backgrounds.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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