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Episode #283 The Right Way to Train the Wrong Way to Research - UI Conference Podcast

August 12, 2016  ·  10 minutes

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When we’re training teams on our design methods, what we perceive as ‘proper’ may in fact become a hindrance. Our dogmatic approach to our processes may prevent people from ever employing the techniques. Is it better to do it the right way, or to teach a wrong way that will get the job done?

Show Notes

Cyd Harrell encountered one such situation, while working with a government design team. They would’ve never conducted user research if she’d taught them the proper way to do it. By breaking “the rules,” she empowered the team to embrace good design and improve the life of their citizens.

Cyd has a wealth of great techniques for successfully teaching guerilla user research. You can learn them all in her full-day workshop at the UI21 conference October 31 - November 2, 2016, in Boston, MA. For more information about Cyd’s and the seven other workshops, visit

Full Transcript

Jared Spool: This is the UI Conference Podcast. I’m Jared Spool. Part of becoming better at something—becoming more experienced—is learning that there’s a right way and a wrong way to get things done. Yet, when you become a master, well, that’s when you learn that sometimes the wrong way might in fact be better than the right way. That moment, when the wrong way is likely the better way, often happens when you’re thrust into a situation where time and resources are at their most limited.
Cyd Harrell: Something that I always try to tell myself is that it makes sense, for me, to refine your techniques and practices over a couple of decades like I have, but if you are an underfunded government person, you might be able to get a lot out of any time you can give to this. My name is Cyd Harrell. I am a UX researcher by trade, and I do a lot of training and mentoring of people in the civic technology space.
Jared: Through her work in the civic space, Cyd has encountered a number of outdated designs in government websites and software.
Cyd: Most government software looks like the '90s, and design is not a priority, particularly the sense of design, as in visual design that most government people would attach to that word, is not a huge priority for software, unless it comes to something like the graphics on the front of the city website.
Jared: As our design influence expands, we need the teams we work with to take on more of their own design process. This is especially true when their resources are constrained, like Cyd’s underfunded government teams. And like all design teams, if they don’t get their design in front of actual users, they may not learn how frustrating they’ve made it. To teach her teams this lesson, Cyd’s come up with a clever and simple trick.
Cyd: I found the whole bunch of sets of instructions for Origami Giraffes. What I do is I actually provide people with inappropriate materials. I put regular eight-and-a-half by 11 sheets on the tables. I don't offer any scissors. At the end of the set of instructions, it wants you to draw spots on the draft. I don't give them any pens as the paper isn't colored. The instructions do a couple of common failure mode things that a lot of websites do like use vocabulary that no one but a power user would be familiar with or the diagrams really aren't clear. If you think about the way that Origami instructions would be provided and in fact like a video might be the best way, but we look at them either on paper on a flat screen.
Jared: Cyd’s origami giraffe trick works. Teams get the message.
Jonathan Feldman: She gave these instructions about how to make the giraffe. Of course no one could do it because the instructions were so God-awful bad, which in city government, we see that all the time. We think it's very clear when it's really clear as mud. Then Cyd stepped everyone through what if you made the instructions based on how people like to take in information. I think a lot of light bulbs went off in my staffs' mind at that point. Jonathan Feldman. Chief Information Officer with the City of Asheville, North Carolina.
Jared: Like many in government positions, Jonathan has experienced the constraints that come with of a shortage of resources.
Jonathan: We had never done usability testing before Cyd's workshop. If we just start designing things in this way where we start doing usability testing of everything, we'd probably be in a lot better shape in terms of actually being able to help people. That was the understatement of the decade because when we did usability testing and we gave folks objectives, man or woman off the street, employees, whomever. We gave people objectives, we found that they were taking sometimes 15 minutes to figure out how the heck to achieve that objective. A couple of redesigns later, it was taking new people, not the same people but cohorts of those people, under 15 seconds to achieve those same goals. That's pretty strong. What's interesting is it just wasn't hard to do. It was tedious. It required time. But it was so effective that my staff became very enthusiastic about doing it. Frankly, the folks in the public information office also became enthusiastic about it. Because who doesn't want their stuff to be easily accessible?
Cyd: One of the first slides in my presentation at that workshop is it's not rocket science. I tell them that if you are someone who can have empathetic phone conversation with someone you care about, about something that's happened to them. You have the necessary skills to do this, well enough, to get something out of it that will make your development better. These are a bunch of practices that I would not use largely in a study that I was doing for a client of mine that I'm recommending to people in different relationship. It's actually influenced the other way and it's like "Well maybe I need to be a little bit more flexible," carefully considered of course in some of what I do myself. It's not that it works better. It's because it works well enough and a gold standard might be unattainable.
Jared: Now some might say Cyd is breaking the rules: She’s teaching these teams a sloppy way to do research and any professional would know better. But, the teams she’s teaching aren’t professionals and they’d never have a chance to work with professionals. The choice isn’t do it the right way or don’t do it at all. Cyd’s approach is that doing something is better than doing nothing. Can we teach teams how to move the needle and get results, using a method that isn’t the proper method, but is more effective than nothing?
Cyd: I try to provide people with an enticing bite of something that isn't necessarily wrong, but that probably isn't all the way right, either, when I'm doing it in that compressed of a timeframe. One other thing I was thinking about is why does this work. In part it works a little bit because I'd been willing especially in working with government people to do it wrong.
Jonathan: I think that a lot of us in our department are very customer focused. I think that we're a little bit unusual of an IT organization because I believe we all think that IT is a people business, not a technology business. We're here to help people, not harm people. Of course we would not go back to that old way of doing things because it just doesn't help people as much.
Cyd: Jonathan was just in for lunch, and he left, so I had to call him back and say, "How did you guys do this? Did you hire a designer?" He said, "No, we just decided to pay attention to design, and we did two or three rounds of testing with real users. Then we listened, and we made it better, and now we've come up with this." The thing that he said to me, and made me really believe it's permanent, is he said, "Cyd, we have never had an opportunity to delight our users."
Jared: That moment—when the team realizes there’s something they can do to dramatically improve the quality of their design work—that’s the moment we are all work for. Showing them that, as long as they have the user in mind they can achieve great results, that’s the core of a good design practice. This means we need to challenge our assumptions about what research needs to be and, more importantly, be much less dogmatic about our processes. Just because a technique might not be textbook perfect, doesn’t mean it’s the wrong way to get our teams focused on delight. The UI Conference podcast is brought to you by the User Interface Conference, October 31 through November 2, 2016 in beautiful Boston, Massachusetts. That’s where Cyd Harrell will give her full-day workshop on Low-Cost Guerrilla User Research. Cyd walked me through everything she’ll teach that day, and it’s fantastic. She’s packed the workshop with practical, real-world techniques that will help you show your teams how they can get immediate and inexpensive information about who their users are and how to design great experiences that’ll meet their needs. If you’re working with teams with constrained budgets and schedules, you’ll definitely want to check out her workshop. You’ll find the complete description of Cyd’s workshop, and the other great full-day workshops at That’s U I C O N F dot com. The UI Conference podcast is produced by myself and Sean Carmichael. We'd like to give special thanks to Cyd Harrell and Jonathan Feldman for being a part of this episode. You can find more information about the UI Conference podcast on iTunes and at the User Interface Conference web site, You’ve been listening the UI Conference Podcast, part of the growing UIE Podcast Network. Thanks for listening and encouraging our behavior.