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A New Way to Measure User Experience: Arts-Based Research

VMware prides itself on innovation. In fact, it’s an explicit company goal. But what does “innovation” really mean? And is there a proven pathway to achieving it?

First off, let’s disambiguate. People often confuse innovation with invention. Invention may involve developing new technology or features. It may even include developing new product categories. Innovation, on the other hand, means invention with impact.

When it comes to technology, “impact” translates into delivering products, features, and experiences that users actually want and need. And short of telepathy, there’s only one path to understanding those needs—research.

Some research is relatively straightforward. For example, I could ask you a series of questions about what features you’d want in a car. Would it be automatic or stick shift? Would it save fuel or accommodate more passengers (or both)? Would you like it to be red, green, or blue?

But when it comes to designing user experiences, “research” becomes a lot murkier (even though it’s just as critical to a product’s success). You can’t necessarily capture human experience on a scorecard.

Let’s say I asked you to rank your opinion of a dashboard’s ease of use on a scale of 1-10. What would that score represent? Perhaps you found the dashboard difficult to learn, but easy to use once you mastered it. Or maybe you found it easy to use, but it seemed disconnected from the rest of the product (which would mean you’d have to familiarize yourself with two user interfaces). And, of course, one person’s definition of “easy” may not be the same as someone else’s. How do I crunch those numbers?

Of course, you can conduct qualitative research, as well. Those types of interviews have always been an essential component of user experience research (UXR) since they more effectively extract the nuances of users’ opinions. But this, too, presents a conundrum: how do we integrate the results of user interviews into a data-driven model that will be actionable for a large group of UX designers and engineers? It’s anything but straightforward or simple.

Bringing innovation to the innovators

A new type of UXR is emerging that may help remedy some of the deficiencies inherent to conventional methodologies: arts-based research.

As Staff User Experience Designer Dr. Bryanne Peterson eloquently explains in this Medium blog, arts-based UXR utilizes an artistic version of data collection. It’s more engaging and aesthetically pleasing—as well as less intimidating—than a survey-based methodology. This research method invites participants to provide feedback in graphical ways that may better capture subjective opinions. But some of these exercises may more easily map results to numerical models, making them more actionable than traditional user interviews.

I had the opportunity to stop by Design with Us, an experiential design research session during VMware Explore Europe, led by our talented Design/UX team.

We know that no two people think, understand, or express themselves in the same way. Those who are more visual may be better able to relate to a graphical framework to provide their opinions. In addition, graphical methodologies, like the example below, may also capture more of the nuance of individual opinions.

To me, the above example makes providing feedback a more enjoyable, and engaging experience. As a result, users may be even more likely to participate and provide feedback. It’s awesome (and innovative!). Bryanne captures it well when she describes arts-based research as a “combination of art, science, and collaboration” that may present an optimal scenario for UXR.

It may not be a magic bullet—but it’s a giant step toward driving better user experiences. And as aspiring innovators, that’s music to our ears.




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