Does UX Research have an image problem?

‘Do you still do UX research stuff?’ The design agency owner sounds concerned, like I might be hanging on to something from the past. I just smile and tell him about the projects I’ve recently worked on. This seems to reassure him: ‘Ha! That’s got nothing to do with UX’. He then hires me to work on a persona project. Go figure!

I’ve had these types of conversations regularly since I moved into the areas of service design, design thinking and co-creation a few years ago. I’m confronted with a very narrow view of UX research, which seems to be based on two connected assumptions:

  1. UX relates to the usability of digital touchpoint
  2. UX research relates to the usability testing of digital touchpoints

It’s not like UX has only just evolved beyond usability. In my early UX days in 2007, I remember showing people Peter Morville’s UX honeycomb to explain the different facets of UX. What’s more, UX was never meant to only concern digital products. As ‘the godfather of UX’ Don Norman has repeatedly said, UX covers all aspects of the person’s experience with a system.

Peter Morville’s UX honeycomb

Likewise, UX researchers doing more than usability testing is not new. In 2017, Nielsen Norman published a chart showing how often UX practitioners reported engaging in certain research methods. Sure, many did usability testing of some sort, but 74% also mentioned field studies/user interviews, 83% mentioned journey mapping and 77% persona building. I certainly did all these things in my UX research roles.

Does it matter if UX research is equated to usability testing?

My personal experience is that this narrow view of UX research makes it seem less relevant to other human-centred design areas, like Service Design, CX and Design Thinking. UX research is reduced to digital touchpoints and we are not benefiting from the broad skills and knowledge that UX researchers can bring. Plus, you end up with conversations like the one I described above.

In fact, I felt so pigeonholed by the title UX researcher that I ‘rebranded’ myself as Design Researcher a few years ago. And this is the funny thing. I give design thinking training in which I teach people about exploratory research, personas and journey maps. I help clients conduct interviews, map experience journeys and build personas. All things I first learned as a UX researcher. 

miXture: a blog that shares insights from, and relevant to, different design and research disciplines

Maaike Mintjes

Maaike is a Design Researcher and Co-creation Facilitator. She also provides training and coaching. She has worked in the field of human-centred design since 2007, both in Australia and The Netherlands. She loves using design thinking to build bridges between research insights and design outcomes.

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