What the learning-by-doing method teached me about UX-research

Tales & Facts from the Hyper Island UX upskill program

Imagine yourself setting out in a small open boat on a wild and stormy ocean, without a certain destination, equipped only with the trust that somehow you will soon learn how to master sailing. That’s the feeling, the beauty and terror, of Hyper Island’s learning-by-doing-methods: While you are clinging to the rudder, thinking you have no idea what you’re doing, the creative confusion storm keeps bringing you closer towards understanding the what and the why. And that’s where my story begins. Read on to know more.

Online learning

.

This review recounts, starting from a very private process perspective, how I managed to make qualitative and quantitative field studies, construct hypotheses, experiment with and prioritize my questions, make surveys and user interviews, synthesize insights and present final recommendations for stakeholders, using the Hyper Island methods in designing an app aiming to make the world a better place.

My learning curve can humbly be described as a tangled line stretching slowly back and forth, shifting between learning and insights, on the how, and the why. Being a rather non-academic person, there is a lot left for me to learn about theory, and how to express myself when talking about and explaining findings and results. I actually still feel a bit immature sometimes, even though I must have been the oldest participant in the Hyper Island UX Design Upskill program, which I am really happy to have been a student with.

The biggest challenge has been to master online learning. Classes, fieldwork, revision, teamwork, group discussions, and the final exhibition of results — everything has taken place online. And this has both up- and downsides. Are we able to learn as much as students who are physically present in a building? How will online learning affect us and our knowledge? And for how long will this be the best alternative?

You all know what I’m talking about.
The world-wide pandemic that affects us all.

From the I-perspective

.

For months in a row, almost everyone I know has been working or studying from home. When I got laid off, in May 2020, I felt like an experienced remote team member, and I had great tools to work with. Online work, studies, or whatever, was not going to be a future problem, I thought.

Then, after returning all my gear to the company where I had been employed, I felt completely stranded. I was really lucky to get a grant for a low-budget-priced PC, and somehow I also managed to dig out my old and worn out MacBook Air from my storage room, and get it up and running with some of the features that I need to do what I am good at.

The online learning challenge

.

Online learning can superficially seem like a rather straightforward process. You can do it in your spare time, and with just a computer plus a wi-fi connection you should be ready to go — right? Well, that’s not exactly the whole truth. Your teachers, their equipment and methods, can be the greatest, but way more important is how your own learning environment is organized.

I don’t have a large screen right now, and I cannot access all the features needed for my user interviews at the same time, because of limited memory space — which is an annoying creative inhibition on both my PC and my Mac. I just try to make the best of it, with my limited resources. For instance, I have started to use the full-screen mode to jam out any disturbing visual background noises when working. And when gearing up for my interviews I used both my laptops and an iPad, to make sure “I–problems” with bandwidth and internal memory were not going to stop the interview

Note to self: Online learning and interviewing are not the easiest things during a pandemia lockdown.

Concentration issues

.

Personally, I somehow ended up at our family’s kitchen table for the interviews, the best place so far when it comes to available surface for gear, and intake of melatonine through excellent daylight possibilities (we live in Sweden, where days get really short during winter time) – family reactions excluded from the equation.

At this table I realized, the hard way, that I am probably partially hearing impaired, that my full concentration attention span doesn’t even last through a traditional 45 minutes meeting – as members of my family are constantly moving around making disturbing noises, complaining about me blocking a common space – and that staying at home for seven and a half months during a pandemia lockdown has shrunk my personal development horizon, and my contacts with the outer world, into the size of a laptop screen and a pair of in-ear headphones.

Now try to become the master of anything.

Retreating to my “Cave”

.

Finally, I had to give up my kitchen table project. I realized that if I want to be able to concentrate, and not miss important details, I had to be able to close a door, so I retreated into my bedroom which is also doubling as a sound studio.

It took my remotely tuned-in brain two full weeks to just get familiar with the great research tools our excellent teacher Martina Tranström did put in our hands. Reading her slides over and over again helped me understand how the process works, identify the different stages of research, and finally synthesize the findings into recommendations. The tempo was high but my process was slow.

Learning by doing is intense, and the Hyper Island program was crazily speedy, from the start, with hardly any time to digest and reflect over each and every step until the next one has been due. But looking back I would anyway conclude it’s the absolute best way to learn. You might be scared to death, and feel completely lost, but you do the assignments and that’s when insights start coming to you. There is no learning without doing, as there are also no insights without being able to reflect and analyze.

Let me take you through the different steps of my assignment, and give you the presentation of my findings. Ready? Here we go!

Field Work Kick-off

.

After choosing between four different personas, and attached assignments, everyone started out with a Kick-off, meeting the fictional Stakeholders and the fictional team. The persona above was the one I choose, for “a feature that delivers effortless positive change to the world”.

I started mapping the target groups and describing the market segment of the feature (whom the product is supposed to be created for, and their life situation), the needs of the users, and what is stopping them from reaching their goals. The session in short could be summarised by describing the target group as “primarily people who are very busy and do not have enough time to be active themselves, but would be willing to give money to others to do the work, making the world a better place.”

Some top features for the product that I thought could be valuable would be to celebrate efforts, achievements, and milestones; to give transparent insights into how the brand works and uses collected funds; and to provide possibilities to learn more, in a fun, entertaining, and trustworthy way, about facts and topics connected to the supported causes.

The business benefit or value behind a feature like the one I have fictionally created was a bit harder to pin down. There are a million ways to increase the value for the customer – through content, different features like a lively community that makes the user interact with the product, and so on. But what would be the gain for the brand and the creators? In this case, I decided that the goal of the stakeholders would not be to make a profit, but to create a digital service with a sustainable structure that drives increased support of the featured projects. This could be done through providing interesting features for the user, and a feeling that the content is really relevant and up to date, which keeps the user informed and hopefully more and more invested in the product.

Prioritisation of Hypotheses

.

I wanted to make things easier for myself so I only brought five prio needs to the board for prioritisation of our hypotheses (the illustration below). I was really sure three of them would be on the users’ top-list, like transparency , trust, and knowledge on how money is used. These were placed top-left, in the corner for most important known needs.

The ones I was not so sure of were if our users needed in-depth knowledge about projects and causes and how the brand works, and if they felt they would need extra motivation to support different causes and projects that could benefit from their support. These were placed to the right, one above the important and one below, on the unsure-side of the table.

Experimental questions

.

In the next step we created our first experimental questions. These would later create the base for our interviews. Below are some of my questions, laid out in Figma. Working with this board was a good way to sift, choose between and dilute the best questions, trying to make them as open-ended as possible (questions that cannot be answered with yes or no).

Writing and publishing a survey

.

I wrote my survey in Google Forms, and chose to make it a survey and not only a screening for a certain group of users, since time was short and I wanted to gather as many answers as possible to my hypotheses.

I was surprised by the fact that even though 78% of the respondents felt that they were really busy, more than 60% of them still said they had time to spare for engagement in community work or political work. This kind of blows away our first assumption, that it’s lack of time that makes users want to give money or support causes in a digital feature.

I would have liked to dive deeper into what the users meant by saying they had time for more engagement, and elaborate on that until I knew more about the factors that really drives them.

Another interesting find was that not only do users need to trust the brand, and know more about how the brand uses their money, but they also need confirmations from others – like the media, friends, other people who support the brand, and other sources – to tell them that the brand is trustworthy. I decided to take that question further, to the interviews.

I also decided to ask the respondents more about how they give money today. Only 26% said they are giving regularly online, 22% said they give eventually, while as many as 52% said they are not giving at all. This was also something I chose to elaborate on in the interviews. The answer to why interviewees did not give was because of being students or unemployed, and many said that as soon as they have the economic possibility they will start giving again.

One user said she had actively chosen to set aside 1% of her income each month for support to causes she believes in.

There were some interesting answers about how to show support too. While I thought it would be more attractive for the user to give support via an app on the phone, or a website, some users pointed out that it’s possible (and to them preferable) to receive an SMS with some kind of demand for support, and then choose if you want to sign a petition or giving money via an included link. Easy, you don’t have to do anything else than receive and read the message, but users also stressed that they wanted to be able to turn the function on or off.

Booking the interviews

.

The first thing I discovered, when inviting the interviewees to book a time that suited them, was that Calendly and Zoom integrate beautifully with each other and made it a dream to work with the bookings. After booking, the users automatically turned up in Zoom with their booked time and link, which was really time-saving and also structurally supportive.

Most of my survey takers did not provide their e-mail address. I finally threw out a call for help on our Slack-channel and I was so grateful that four of my classmates and one teacher volunteered to be interviewees. It was however enough to be able to feel, see, and hear, a clear difference between the interviews, and in the fifth, which was shorter than the others, I felt I had found a better tone, pace, and scope.

Conducting the interviews

.

I prepared the interviews with the template for an Interview Guide that our teacher provided us with. Below translated into Swedish.

.

Four of the user interviews were conducted in Swedish, one in English. For natural reasons, I could not use the transcription service Trint since Swedish doesn’t work with that service (one classmate referred to the result as “completely BANANAS” and recommended it for a hysterical laughing session). I chose instead to keep short notes throughout the interviews to be able to find my way back and take quotes later on.

The first interview was too long and contained too many questions, while the last one was short with just enough questions, leaving space for some follow-up questions, and card-sorting in a nice tempo, with the user explaining why different features went to different columns.

At first I felt really embarrassed looking at myself on the screen, it was not easy to relax. I felt a bit intimidated and insecure seeing myself live on video. And five interviews were not enough to erase that feeling.

One mistake I made was to make the introduction very long and boring, maybe even confusing, for my interwiewees. I think the main reason to why this happened was because I had not really decided on the details of the product or feature I was researching on. Combined with my insecurity this made the introduction a bit blabbery and not so stringent. I guess routine, rehearsing, and doing more interviews, is the only way to get past this.

Sorting cards

.

I was not able technically to set up card sorting in any other service than Kanbanflow before conducting the interviews, because of memory problems on my computer. But the method turned out just fine, and I was able to see clear patterns in how the users placed their cards. One of the things that turned out to be really important for all users, was the feature to be able to see how collected money is used, which was expected. And of cause to trust the brand before you give money.

One thing that I did not expect was that when listening to what the users said when sorting, comparing what they said, it became really clear to me that trust is earned not so much by how a brand explains or gives information about themselves in an app, or on the webb, but much stronger by how others see and define them. A brand that is completely unkown will not get support. And for a brand that has gotten a bad reputation and a bad name in the media, this bad name will get stuck with them for a very long time forward.

Several of my interviewees mentioned recurring scandals around the organization Swedish Red Cross, and Rädda Barnen (Save the children) as examples to how an organization can lose the trust of their contributors.

Grouping quotes per hypothesis

.

The next step after the interviews was a really interesting and teaching process, where much more could have been derived from the research, if time had been enough, and if I had been more experienced. Here are some of the most important quotes, and some recommended next steps.

“It’s very important that you have access to information about the organization, that you get to know how they work, what they do with the money you give, and who they are.” … “Without info on how they manage their projects or how successful they have been, I won’t give any money.” … “Most important to me is the transparency, I want the brand to show me how they divide the money, how they work with what they got their funds for”

Next step: to provide transparency and information

“Many brands need to get better at showing inspiring examples and visually interesting stories about what support means for those at the receiving end” … “I don’t want to be spammed by promotion, I want to know what they have actually really done to create change” … “Certifications are not enough, they are no guarantee for sustainability. There is a lot of greenwashing, it is hard to trust brands” … ”Media reports can definitely influence how you see an organization”

Next step: to get better at storytelling and visualization of work

“I would like to have more information about my own imprint, something that shows me that what I’ve contributed with makes a difference” … “I prefer to support smaller, personal projects, than large brands”

Next step: to personalize the experience, let users know what impact their actions have, and encourage them through a progress visualization

I wish I could have had the time to make the insights more profound, and elaborate on them as beautifully as in the templates we got in the slides, but my tools, my speed of understanding, and the time were not enough.

Insights and principles

.

I sorted out five main insights that represent what our users have said, and what they think is important. Then I synthesized them into principles derived from the insights, as the foundation for a concept session (“how might we…”), that helped me write the final recommendations to the business owner.

I wish I could have had the time to make the insights more profound, and elaborate on them as beautifully as in the templates we got in the slides, but my tools, my speed of understanding and the time were not enough.

Recommendations / Presentation

.

The new feature I have been researching for is hypothetically a new app, a new brand, that is supposed to give users possibility to support different charities and organizations, while also providing users with detailed information about them.

The short recommendations can be summarised as follows:

  1. To be as transparent as possible with everything you do and plan, and to be personal, simple and honest – this will ultimately help users feel that they can trust your brand.
  2. To give users as much insight and information as possible on your organizations and yourselves, how you use money that is collected, and what is done with the funds in the organization’s users support. Also try to get a 90-account.
  3. To do great work, document it, get better at storytelling, let the users see that you are really using your funds to create change for the better in the world. Invite the media to review your organization and projects, and show that you have nothing to hide.
  4. Nudge users to take action through gamification, visuals, quizzies, facts and reviews that show how contributions to different causes actually help to change things for the better.
  5. Encourage users through showing them the effect of their individual efforts, how their specific contributions help to make progress, and give them possibilities to support causes as effortlessly as possible, for example through using sms-services.

Finally, general insights gained from both the quantitative and qualitative research show that almost all users feel that they both want to, and can do, more to contribute to a better world. What stops them from doing more is partly economic circumstances but also the fact that they want more detailed knowledge about organizations they support to trust them, and facts about how their personal engagement can make changes possible.

To conclude the findings of the qual and quant it’s also important for business owners to know what users explained: That they tend to get very depressed by catastrophic images and doomsday-like predictions about the future, and when they start feeling hopeless this actually make them see it as less meaningful to give any type of support. Users also generally expressed that they would like to see more positive news and facts, to help them stay positive and hopeful of the future.

Apps that I used during the process

Trint
Calendly
Zoom
Figma
Kanbanflow
Google Sheets

UX Designer & UX Writer, with some Frontend skills. Journalist. IP/Author's Rights. Tech. New Digital Media. Networking across the Globe. Ex board mbr RSF/SE.