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How UX Practitioners Produce Findings in Usability Testing

How UX Practitioners Produce Findings in Usability Testing

The Paper

How UX Practitioners Produce Findings in Usability Testing by Stuart Reeves, in ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, January 2019.


Various features of this paper make it a shoe-in for Research Watch.

  • It is about the intersection between academia and commercial practice. That is where the word “Labrary” comes from.
  • It extends the usual “human-computer interaction” focus of UX to include the team performing the UX, which an aspect of PETRI.
  • I get to use the word “praxeology”.

Reeves compares the state of UX in the academic literature with the state of UX in commercial fields. He finds a philosophical gap that is similar to something I observed when studying “Requirements Engineering” on a Software Engineering M.Sc. course. Generally, the academic treatment of UX describes usability problems as things that exist, and that the task of UX activities is to find them.

The same can be seen in much early literature on requirements engineering. We assume that there is a Platonic model of how a software product should work, and that the job of the requirements engineer is to “gather” requirements from the stakeholders. Picture a worker with a butterfly net, trying to collect in these elusive and flighty requirements so they can pin them down in a display case made by the Jira Cabinet Company.

There’s an idea here that, even before it’s formed, the software is real and has an identity independent of the makers, users, and funders. Your role in the software production process is one of learning and discovery, trying to attain or at least approximate this ideal view of the system that’s out there to be had.

Contrasted with this is the “postmodern” view, which is a more emergent view. Systems and processes result from the way that we come together and interact. A software system both mediates particular interactions and blocks or deters others. The software system itself is the interaction between people, and developments in it arise as a result of their exchanges.

In this worldview, there are not “UX problems” to be found by adequate application of UX problem-discovery tools. There are people using software, people observing people using software, and people changing software, and sometimes their activities come together to result in a change to the software.

This philosophy is the lens through which Reeves engages in the praxeology (study of methods) of UX practitioners. His method is informed by ethnomethodological conversation analysis, which is an academic way of saying “I watched people in their context, paying particular attention to what they said to each other”.

The UX activity he describes is performed by actors in two different rooms. In the test room, the participant uses a computer to achieve a goal, with some context and encouragement provided by a moderator. The rest of the team are in the observation room, where they can see and hear the test room and the participant’s screen but talk amongst themselves.

Four representative fragments expose different features of the interactions, and to my mind show that UX is performative, arising from those interactions rather than being an intrinsic property of the software.

  • In fragment A, the participant reports a problem, the observers react and decide to report it.
  • In fragment B, the participant reports a problem, the observers react and suppress reporting it.
  • In fragment C, the participant does not seem to be having a problem, but the observers comment that they did not do something they would have expected, and discuss whether this is an issue.
  • In fragment D, the participant is working on the task but does not choose the expected approach, observers see that, and define a problem and a solution that encompasses that.

One observation here is that even where a participant is able to complete the task, a problem was raised. The case in fragment D is that the participant was asked how they would report a problematic advert. They described sending an email to the client. That would work. However, the product team see that as a problem, because they are working on the “submit a complaint” feature on the website. So, even though the task goal can be satisfied, it was not satisfied the way they want, which means there’s a UX problem.

There are all sorts of things to learn from this. One is that you can’t separate the world neatly into “ways humans do things” and “measurements of the ways humans do things”, because the measurements themselves are done by humans who have ways of doing things. Another is that what you get out of UX investigations depends as much on the observers as it does on the participants’ abilities. What they choose to collectively see as problems and to report as problems depends on their views and their interactions to an extent comparable to their observations of the participants working through the tasks.

Ultimately it’s more evidence for the three systems model. Your team, your software, and your customers are all interacting in subtle ways. Behaviour in any one of these parts can cause significant changes in the others.