User Research Participants as Experts

Listening to Whitney Quesenbery’s interview of medical anthropologist Francine Harris on the UIE Brain Sparks podcast, I was struck by the suggestion that Harris made that UX researchers and designers should move away from thinking about the people who participate in the research as “subjects” and instead consider them to be “experts.”

Subjects reflect an inherently passive role in a research project. Researchers administer questionnaires that are designed by the research. They analyze results.

They do lots of things that confirm the expertise of the researcher. But, in reality, subjects are the experts. They have the knowledge that we want to understand and use. The question that researchers and designers need to ask themselves is, “How do we find out what they know?” It’s as much an attitude towards research and people. It has implications for how we define our research goals.

The interviewer, Whitney Quesenbery, then suggests to Harris that “it sounds like a big shift in your attitude about your research” from a position of ‘I am the person in the white coat studying things’ to ‘I’m engaging with people as I work with them.’” As someone who has done a lot usability testing, I find the mindset that Harris advocates compelling. So how do I think this might change my approach to designing research projects?

For one thing, I think remembering that the participant is an expert keeps my hubris in check. It’s easy for me to get carried away in thinking I’m the expert, I’m the person who knows this and that about user behavior and best practices, etc. But if I was such an expert, then I wouldn’t really need to do much testing. I’d already know everything I need to know.

My users are the experts, and it is up to me to continually be going back to them to understand how they use our systems. Yes, as a librarian, I know that there are more efficient ways of doing things in our systems and that sometimes there are even ways of doing thing that are objectively “right.. But that really doesn’t matter to me so much as a UX researcher. I’m not a user of our systems in the same way our primary audience is, or if I am, I’m a very special case (as are all of my fellow librarians). The “experts” at using our systems are the people these systems are primarily designed for (at my library, that would be the students and faculty of the college where I work). These experts are using our systems in their own way, not necessarily the way a librarian would (but that doesn’t matter). My job is to consider them as experts and then try to understand how they approach our systems, how they interact with them, what mental models they have in mind as they use our systems.

Keeping this perspective–that our users are our “experts” that we need to learn from and understand–will prevent me from designing research questions for projects that are flawed because I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I already “know” what I’m going to find. When it comes to analyzing usability tests, this perspective can help me maintain a more open mind about what I’m seeing.

And, finally, I think it will allow me to be more open to design suggestions from our experts. We should be fitting our systems when possible to their way of doing things, not strictly our preconceived models of what’s best for them. This last point speaks to what Harris was getting at when she mentioned that “subjects reflect an inherently passive role in a research project.” Later in the interview she talks about “participatory action research” as a method whereby the people being studied can play an active role in developing the research agenda, in analyzing the results, or designing solutions. I’m going to have think about that some more to see if there’s a way to bring that kind of collaboration into the UX design work I’d like to pursue. Stay tuned.