Show Notes: Nick Bowmast - Beyond UX

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Show Summary:

Nick Bowmast is a design researcher who’s worked in hospital wards, breweries, meat processing plants and even correctional facilities, seeking insights on the way we make sense of the world around us.

After an early experience shaping boards for a world champ surfer, and time working in architecture, in 2009 he flipped his focus to research. He’s also the author of USERPALOOZA, a field guide to understanding people, as the key to successful design.

Show Notes:

  • [1:21] What did “UX” (user experience) start out meaning and what has it turned into over time?
  • [4:38] What is the thinking that UX is born out of?
  • [6:20] As a design researcher, what do people think you do, and what do you actually do?
  • [10:18] Can design research offer significant positive change within a company?
  • [11:30] To what extend was your early experience as a surfboard shaper a building block for design research?
  • [13:10] What was it that made you want to go out and surf with the people that you made surfboards for?
  • [15:06] What is the essential quality of a researcher or designer?
  • [16:29] What was it like for Nick to do design research in New Zealand’s prison system?
  • [21:52] What does it look like when an organization does a bad job at understanding its customers?
  • [23:56] Why car rental horror stories are so relatable
  • [26:49] The playbook of deceptive UX in online products and services
  • [30:36] What is the one easiest way that we could integrate design research into our lives?

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Transcript:

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Jimmy
We’re talking with Nick Bowmast today. He’s a design researcher who’s worked in hospital wards, breweries, meat processing plants and even correctional facilities. Seeking insights on the way we make sense of the world around us. After an early experience shaping boards for world champ surfer and time working in architecture, in 2009, he flipped his focus to research. He’s also the author of User Palooza: a Field Guide to understanding people as the key to successful design. Nick, welcome.

Nick
Tēna koutou katoa Ko Nick Bowmast toku ingoa Nō Ōtautahi ahau Ka nui te mihi ki a koutou No reira, tēna koutou, tēna koutou, tēna koutou katoa.

Jimmy So Nick, in the lead up to this conversation, we talked a bit about user experience or UX. And you made a point about not being an expert in UX and really, you know, not even considering yourself as working in UX. And I got the sense that UX, quote unquote, as a label has evolved, or maybe devolved over the years. And so what did UX start out meaning and what has it turned into over time?

Nick
UX sort of became popular as companies transferred their offerings from offline to online and realised that being able to do it through the technology and making it work for people were two different things. And that you could gain or lose customers by how well that worked for people. A lot of the activities around that were testing things to make sure they were easy enough to use. Before too long services were being innovated and new ways of offering things emerged. And so those things needed to be designed. And it was the design of those things and being aware that they needed to be tested, so people could understand them and that they would relate to people that bought that sort of UX into the design of those types of digital products. Today I suppose a decade down the line, user experience design almost always applies to the design of things that are presented to people on screens and how they interact with those things. But the people that work in that environment often have to do some work to understand how people think. They discover there’s a lot of contextual realities and things that are outside of and away from and that may be happen well earlier than they even get to the screen that influence what that experience is going to be like, what the expectation is going to be, etc. So the UX part is a part of design and includes understanding people, but there’s a much bigger world outside of that, of the all of the things different types of experience people have and what they bring to what that interaction is.

Jimmy
It’s funny because the UX label almost functions in an extremely macro way in an extremely micro way, right? User experience. Well, a user can experience almost anything. At the same time, it’s overtime narrowed into this thing where like you say, you have UX designers who often that is a word for this is how I designed this website or this online experience or something that you experience on a screen.

Nick
Yes, so for example, if you asked a UX designer to show me what you’ve made, what you’ve been working on, they will show you screens and so that is the sort of output but the the thinking behind it, the order, the cadence, the flow of information. That is all, borne out of a need to understand who the person is who’s going to be using it. Where are they going to be? What are they going to be doing? What are the needs? That sort of thing?

Jimmy
And do you think most UX designers realise this? Do you think that they are pretty understanding of the need for looking further back than just when someone arrives on their website, for example, do you think there’s an understanding of that, or do you think that could improve?

Nick
I think there’s absolutely a spectrum of people who are working in environments where these products and services are being created of people who want to make stuff and people would want to find out why to make stuff. And there’s people who know how to make it. But then there’s also people who want to understand the people who are going to use it. And when you find a person who can operate across all of those things, and be competent with all of them and care enough about all of them, then that’s, that’s pretty rare. That’s your sort of unicorn person, but most people have a bias towards one or the other so it’s pretty, it’s kind of pretty rare to find someone who is really passionate and able and motivated to understand the people part, as well as knowing how to and wanting to be doing the building part.

Jimmy
And we also talked earlier about people thinking that you do certain things, so what do people think You do and what do you actually do?

Nick
I think people, quite possibly when they think of research, they think of asking questions, listening. But (and that’s of course a key part of learning) there’s also a lot of work that goes in with research before you start asking any questions or even meeting any customers or watching how they do things. That is to find out what is the actual research brief. Because in the same way conducting design research helps the designers know what to build and why by saying here’s who for and why, why those people need it and how they would best benefit from it, the researcher themselves also needs to understand, why are we doing this research? Who needs the findings? Why is now the right time for this? So that they can understand who should the people be that they they talk to, and what contexts do they want to meet people in? So there’s a lot of planning work that goes in up front. And often, often more of that than actually being in the field. So the part is probably the most commonly underestimated is the amount of planning, defining what the research questions are, what are the unknown unknowns and the information gaps.

Jimmy
Yeah, and it sounds like people generally understand the thing, but not what the whole wrappers for delivering the thing and the point of doing it in the first place.

Nick
Yeah, that’s right. It’s often surprising what is known within an organisation and what information is there but it’s hidden inside someone’s brain or it’s hidden deep in some data. And it’s quite common to come back from research and for some of it to be not news. So things might be considered obvious to this organisation, but they don’t think that it’s necessary to share that with this other part of the organisation. So it can be very revealing about where the knowledge lies within an organisation, or team.

Jimmy
Yeah. So you’re kind of surface surfacing things as opposed to really discovering them for the first time.

Nick
Yeah, you’re surfacing them and you’re doing them in a way that is really representative of who the people are and the needs that exist that the realities that exist out there. So it’s coming from outside in so it’s when the works gone in upfront in the planning, and people understand that you’ve been speaking to the right people, and meeting them in the right place at the right time. Then it’s very credible. Then everyone can agree that this is worth listening to it’s a very evidential as opposed to anecdotal way of fuelling decisions.

Jimmy
And do you see that a lot, once you’ve presented these findings, the idea would be that, that leadership can point to this project and say, This is why we’re doing what we’re doing. It really does provide that ammunition for change. Is that accurate?

Nick
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. If there’s not a matter of changing direction, absolutely always is a change in people’s mindset. And sometimes, in fact, it’s changing the way people think about their customer, about what the need is that they’re solving. Sometimes that can be the greatest win even though you’re aware that there are going to be only tactical decisions, they would be made with more confidence etc. Sometimes the best feeling comes from knowing that now everyone has a joint understanding of why they’re doing this and what the value is that it can bring.

Jimmy Going back a couple of years, just a couple of years you were a board shaper in the surf scene for a while so in the cave, huge facemask grinding fibreglass. It seems pretty unrelated to what you’re doing now but but to what extent was that early experience a building block?

Nick
Those are wonderful days and I’m pleased that my lungs have remained intact. But it’s only really in retrospect that I can go back and see that part of me was a researcher back then. I would have laughed if you’d called it research at the time, but I felt like when people came to me and said, I need my board like this, I ride like this. I’m going to Mexico the waves are going to be like that, so I need a board with these, you know, with this particular these attributes. Because I also rode boards, I understood that it was really only by going riding with those people that I was able to make the right board for them. It was easy enough to make the board that they asked for, but by going riding with them, I was able to understand what the board was that they really needed for the conditions that they were going to ride and how they rode, which was often not the idealised waves that they had described.

Jimmy
Yeah, yeah. So you said there, it would have been easy to make the board that they asked for. And that’s very interesting, because you could have done that. Right? And I’m sure there are a lot of board shapers that do that. So what was it that made you want to go out and ride with them? And to really understand why didn’t you say, yeah, sure, I’ll make that board.

Nick
Oh sometimes it was simply because they were, they were team members. We had a pretty interesting setup, we were quite a bunch of us all living together, building boards together. Some of the people were state champions and things like this. So the ones that I was riding with, I was much more able to make the right board for then the ones who came to me from elsewhere, who I hadn’t met and I didn’t understand as well. So I noticed there was that difference. That deep understanding of what that person needed. And it’s the same in, you know, delivering any sort of product or service. It’s always a risk to just listen to what people ask for. So that the onus falls on the service provider or the designer or whoever’s writing the copy or whatever it is that you’re trying to generate, is to question why is this person asking for this thing? And what is it that is the reason that’s made them ask for it? Because it’s not always the sort of face value thing.

Jimmy
If you treat something, any situation where you’re providing something to people, as an opportunity to be curious, that can act as a building block. Right? You can, you know, you can start researching from basically any position if you’re making something or if you have a craft or you know, service or anything like that.

Nick
Yeah, that’s and it’s the curiosity is the, that’s the essential quality of the researcher or of the designer who wants to bring people into the process. And I was reminded, as I was talking about before, of the sort of famous slash infamous Henry Ford or not quote about the faster horses and how, quite simply, you can get past that to a more valuable question. So that also why is it that you want a faster horse? Well, because anyone can ride. Oh, so we’ve been building this car, we need to make sure anyone can drive it. And what would you change about the horse? Well, there’s this and this there, and I have to feed it and I get awfully messy. So there’s always a way to get deeper and get more meaning and get beyond that initial, ask the value is always there to convert into how you can make building a product for that person.

Jimmy
You also took on a project inside correctional facilities which I think a lot of outsiders would refer to as prisons. Can you talk me through that experience and what the goals were of the project?

Nick
That project was here in New Zealand and there were varying types of offenders. And it was about recidivism, which means, as I learned, the likelihood of compliance or to reoffend. And what we were trying to measure was, how well different programmes were communicated to people. And what were the influences that made them lead them to go down certain pathways in terms of adopting different programmes, which were, ways to make them respond well, to being in the circumstance. So this involved having a chaperone, of course, which means always having someone from the Department of Corrections with us and beyond that, and it was just like any other kind of research study. It was face to face. And it was deep, lengthy, sometimes circular conversations, but the thing that made it really stand out was that it was really heavy. And it was really moving. And you had to be hyper-aware of how was the other person feeling? And what in how comfortable were they with talking about the things that we’re talking about. So they were bringing up you know, historic events and sometimes quick to tell you their side of the story. But you knew that it was, it was often often painful and seeing seeing people who are on a surface sort of might come across as quite intimidating be broken down to tears, you realise what a massive responsibility you had to do justice with it and not just treat what I was saying is data points but to really acknowledge the person behind it.

Jimmy
And as you built out those personal stories and without turning them into data points kind of quantified them a little bit and came out of it with learnings that you delivered. What were some of the biggest surprises out of that process? Was there anything you went in any assumptions you went in with that got completely switch 180 or even the Department of Corrections had that got flipped 180?

Nick
I think that was one of the things which became a truth in that project. And I think I could say it’s common for a lot of projects is that despite the system, the product, the interface, the all the moving parts, the platform, the channel, whatever you call, the way the thing is delivered. The greatest opportunity for products and services to win or those the heart of the user is when people are involved. And it is the level of trust, compassion, understanding that is exhibited through People to People interactions, even if that’s an email or a phone call, but even more so in person, those are where the make or break can lie for a brand relating to its customer or its user. And that became even in this project, but it’s also there for even companies who most of their product or service is delivered digitally. That when, perhaps if things haven’t gone, right, and there needs to be some personal contact, the way it’s the way that’s handled that defines with the most power, if you like, people’s perception of what’s really driving this organisation. Am I coming first or are they putting themselves first. How genuine are they? Do I trust them? And this is where, you know, it’s … it’s people.

Jimmy
And could you describe, we talked, you said that it was not only an inside of these organisations but inside organisations in general that is really about people. What does it look like when an otherwise well-functioning organisation does a really bad job at specifically understanding its customers or its users or whoever it’s serving? How does that mistake that oversight start showing up?

Nick
On a project I’ve worked on in travel and travel and tourism, we would we would hear that people would to find out sort of to test provider of an operator of a of an attraction or motel, motel accommodation, etc, people would email them and they would be judging on how quickly the email would be responded to or the tone that was in the email how welcomely was the inquiry received. So it’s in these situations that companies can win or lose the faith of the of their customer. They’ve been judged. So when things when things go wrong, it that’s, that’s particularly impactful. So for example, when you ring up to ask to change your, your package with your mobile phone provider, and you find that oh, oh, yes, we actually we could put you on a better plan, but you realise that they haven’t been proactive and offering you that bit of playing it. It sort of really reduces your estimation of how much they really want to be in it for you rather than for them.

Jimmy
Yeah, they haven’t. Anyway, they didn’t put in the time to design systems that allow them or encourage them to put you first.

Nick
No, and you and you and you feel it. I mean, it’s amazing, example, where you go to get your rental car, and you book The compact, and you arrive, and they say, Oh, look, would you like this SUV? And you say, Oh, look, I booked a compact work. It’s only another, another $12 a day for the SUV. And you say, look on, actually, I know I’d really prefer to have the compact. And so they’re going to talk to the manager and they come back and they say, look, we’ll do it. We’ll do it for $9 a day. And you say we’d rather have the compact and then go and speak to the manager again, and then come back and say, Look, we’re going to offer you this for free. And when you say look, I want the compact, because then give you a reason and they say well, actually I’m we’re all out of compacts. We’re going to have to take the SUV. And so you realise that the whole way through your needs were not top of mind. And you never forget that.

Jimmy
No, I mean, I can recall painful, specifically painful car rental experiences. And it’s funny, isn’t it? How some industries seem so much more prone to this than others prone to playing games. Trying to make out like they’re doing you a favour when they’re not. What is it about? Do you think there’s something inherent in certain industries that turns the companies into that? Or is it just that there’s a sort of standard operating procedure, kind of behavioural code that ends up with them all converging on this really horrible surface point?

Nick
Yeah, I think that there, I mean, there are a lot of these dark patterns and they’re known as built into digital products and services with the opt-ins and the tricks and the traps and a lot of different ones. A colleague of mine Harry Brignull has managed to name quite a few of these different tricks that online services provide. But they exist in the sort of playbooks of the way people in customer service operate as well. And if you phone up to cancel your subscription to cable, the only the very best of the call centre operators get to work on the churn team. And they are the ones who have got all the lines to bring you to back on. And they’ve got many, many sort of levels of, of types of offers that they can give it to you to try to keep you on.

Jimmy
That’s really an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff sort of scenario, isn’t it?

Nick
I mean people say your brand is how you behave. And this is how this is a designed behaviour. And it’s completely at odds with helping the person get what they, what they need and all about the engineering what the organisation needs. So every one of these sort of touch points if you like, and interactions, there’s the opportunity to behave in the right way. And so great brands and organisations, they know, they know how to behave.

Jimmy
And you’ve talked about digital objects and physical objects and digital services, physical services. How does design research change? Or does it change at all when you switch between projects on digital versus physical?

Nick
Sometimes if the product is digital, you have to sort of take into account that it might be something being used infrequently, but over time, and so it might be the sort of thing where you might need to run some some sort of a diary or something like that. So for example, in banking, that’s something that happens two or three times a week on an app. So it might not be something you can go and watch, because it might be all over and done within five seconds, someone transferring some money on the app. So that makes it different compared to using a homebrew equipment, which is a whole day process. And it’s quite a lot easier to take in all the contextual richness of that by hanging out in someone’s basement while they mix and stir and do a lot of waiting. So the real key to design research is to understand the context in which the product is used. And that’s where digital is different, because you might be needing to be next to them while they’re browsing, or doing some sort of online activity, or that might be happening while they’re in their car. It’s just a matter of sort of being agnostic to whether it’s digital or physical. And being where the person is meeting them in that moment.

Jimmy
Yeah, and it sounds like just some moments are a little more elusive than others to be able to meet them in.

Nick
That’s right and so we don’t always want to be relying on their sort of recollection or reenactment of a certain moment. So we also don’t want to purely fabricate those moments, but we do the best between some triangulating between those things and asking people to going to record those moments as they happen. So that when you mix all those types of ways to capture that together, you can be fairly confident you got a good picture of what goes on.

Jimmy
What is the one easiest way that somebody could integrate design research into their life? So whether it’s the founder of a startup, whether it’s a parent trying to understand their child, anyone trying to understand or make sense of the people in the world around them? Is there one little kind of easy, everyday thing that they can do to integrate that and to benefit from it?

Nick
I think it’s, um, it’s making time for and being deliberate. So you’ll meet many, many companies and when you ask what sort of amount of contact they have with the customer, they will say, well, our sales people are with them all the time. But the sales person’s sort of mode isn’t always to listen, or to ask why?. So it’s about being, having the intent in being deliberate in wanting to understand deeper and that’s about building up your curiosity and putting it into action.

Jimmy
And it does take that act of conscious effort, deliberate effort, doesn’t it because, you know, even just the parent and child example, I gave, it’s so full-on. That a never ending that you actually need to step back. Clear time and time doesn’t doesn’t just present itself. And you have to really think about how you’re going to approach it for it to be imagined for it to be effective.

Nick
Oh, absolutely. And when you think of organisations like when you’re when you’ve got parent child or small team, you know, founder in there 3, 4, 6 colleagues, that’s, it’s, it’s, there’s not a lot of not a lot of barriers to getting that to happen. You just have to have the need, but few I’ve actually heard it described once. If you imagine an organisation as it grows, it’s measured as a growing sphere. And at the very core, it is where decisions get made and as it grows, this surface if you mentioned the surface area is the, the touch, you have with your interactions with your customer and the outside world is a sphere grows, the surface area gets much bigger so you’ve got way more way more touch with your customer. But the mass inside the sphere is so is growing him in a you know to a huge degree more or probably being able to be described with PI about divided by something, that this a lot more noise to get through before those signals can get all the way into the core. So it’s about reducing their distance and that usually means getting out from the core and going out to the edge which is where your customer is.

Jimmy
That’s a powerful visual. I think if we can imagine that circle and imagine us at the centre of it because that, it’s what we like to do as humans imagine ourselves at the centre of things, then then yet that’s a really effective way of remembering it and forcing yourself to get up on the edge of the circle.

Jimmy
Well, thanks for jumping on Nick.

Nick
Thanks to you, Jimmy and kia kaha from Aotearoa/New Zealand.