UX beyond the numbers

I love numbers. I love data, stats, feedback, and measurements. But in our quest to bring control to the chaos and understand the overwhelming amounts of data constantly flowing our way its important to remember that the lens is just as important as the view. The limitations of the data we have and the way we interpret that data can create a reality in our minds that may not be there.

Lewis Mumford wrote in Utopia, the City and the Machine that through our focus on numerical ideology we are reducing reality to only what we can measure and control. This reality ignores the human, the frail, the emotional. In essence it dehumanizes us.

The potential implications on UX are profound and inherently impossible to measure. We cant measure what we dont know, but we ignore the reality beyond what we can measure to our detriment. Knowledge gained through alternate sources such as intuition, emotional or aesthetic experience, and our moral compass have great value and can inform and lead our UX work to unexpected places that the data on its own would not.

User personas are a good example. They are in wide use and a helpful tool to gather and focus the different elements on a development team and help form a shared goal. But user personas are slow. They take time and resources to create, and are slow to change after they are in place. Reality moves faster and humans evolve and grow. Even the act of interacting with your own newly launched product can change your user. Our intuition and empathy for our fellow humans can understand and make this leap in seconds, while an updated user persona based on slowly collecting user data may be months away. Presenting a user persona as a static truth actually gets in the way of truly understanding the customer or user.

Honest data collection is an extremely complex task. We tend to think of data as objective, neutral information but that’s not the case. Slight changes in collection methods or data interpretation can result in big changes in the conclusions drawn. Thats not the data’s fault, but it is its weakness. The goal of all our painstaking research is ofcourse to identify patterns of behavior, recognize the behaviors that users are hungry for, and build more opportunities around them. That knowledge can come from analytics data, user surveys, and personas, but also from our own lived experience.

What’s wrong with technology is that it’s not connected in any real way with matters of the spirit and heart. And so it does blind, ugly things quite by accident and gets hate for that.”

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Rather than looking at the picture of reality that the data builds as a strong and complete foundation, lets accept it for what it is: a rough sketch, the best we’ve got, but hardly a full picture. We can call on our other resources of information gathering to help fill in the blanks. And in those blank spaces is where innovation and new thinking about what user experience really means will happen.