Q&A: UX Researcher Kevin Braun Explains What Companies Are Missing with UX
Kevin Braun has two decades of experience managing UX teams of designers and developers, and worked as a UX expert with Applause during that time. Braun has helped several of the world’s biggest companies improve their UX, and recently published a book, From Chaos to Concept: A Team Oriented Approach to Designing World Class Products and Experiences, which is available here.
We wanted to hear from Braun about his experiences in the UX space, why organizations should leverage UX research on an ongoing basis and discuss some of his memorable experiences in the UX sector.
What drove you into the UX world?
Braun: I was working at 3 a.m. with the design and development team I managed back in the late 1990s. I was also seriously questioning why we were doing the work we were doing. This team was amazing, and they did great work, but I had the sneaking suspicion that no matter how hard we worked and how well we executed, this project wasn’t going to be a success.
At that moment, I wasn’t aware there was a defined process we could use to help ensure that the work we were doing was going to be well-received by the target audience, but I was painfully aware that something was missing from our process.
Not long after that project, that same team ended up working on a project with Cisco Systems. This was when I met Debora Mayhew. She introduced me to the user-centered design processes of defining target users and testing paper prototypes with users who match those demographics.
These seem like common sense now, but at the time, not many people were doing any of that. At that time, most designers were bravely adapting their skills from print-based design as fast as they could to meet the demand for web-based designs. IDEO and the Nielsen Norman Group had just recently been founded, and according to Jacob Nielsen, there were less than 10 thousand UX professionals in the entire world. Contrast that to today, when there are more than 1 million UX professionals worldwide, and it’s estimated that there are 13,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area alone.
Having that experience and getting to see the positive impacts that the user-centered design process had on the project convinced me that I needed to do all I could to build the skills necessary to become a full-stack UX professional. It has been a long journey, and I’m still reading as many books as I can, taking classes from sites like the Interaction Design Foundation, and learning from my peers. That’s one of the best parts of the UX industry: You’ll never be bored, and you’ll never be done learning.
What do you think companies are not considering when it comes to UX strategy and design?
Braun: Being able to clearly articulate what a team is expected to do and what the desired outcomes are is the first step on the road to success. That sounds obvious, but I’ve been in countless kick-off meetings where neither of those two questions could be answered by the project stakeholders. The leadership teams had some vague statements to share about the high-level direction such as “Improve the UX” or “We want to be the Apple of our industry,” but nothing that is specifically actionable.
This isn’t just my observation. According to an article published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, “Only one-quarter of the managers surveyed could list three of the company’s five strategic priorities. Even worse, one-third of the leaders charged with implementing the company’s strategy could not list even one.”
The first thing you need to do to succeed is identify and document your goal, then follow that up with strategies and measurable objectives. With that foundation, companies can move on to the more tactical work of using personas, scenarios and use cases to inform the direction of their interaction design, information architecture and user flows.
Based on your experience, why is it important to conduct UX studies on an ongoing basis?
Braun: Imagine that we are all, as businesses, driving in the dark. Using your analytics and believing they have all your research needs covered is like shining a bright light out the back window of your car while driving on the highway with no headlights on. That light out the back window does a great job of illuminating what’s behind you, but is of limited value in helping guide where you are going.
Conducting expert design reviews and heuristic evaluations are like having headlights. They are at least shining out front and helping your team figure out where to go while helping the business miss potholes and other obvious hazards, but the value is limited by the depth of vision your team has vs. what your users are experiencing.
UX studies are like having a GPS in your car. They provide information about what is actually happening on the road ahead, based on many data points collected from many users. All that information is then shared with your team. That way, they can identify issues that can’t be seen in any other way, and plan to avoid those issues long before they impact your progress. This real-time information is useful for mapping your team’s journey and adjusting to issues identified along the way.
Conducting expert design reviews and heuristic evaluations are like having headlights. … UX studies are like having a GPS in your car.
The best teams use all three methods regularly.
In your opinion, what is the value of conducting UX research with a global community of people who match target demographics?
Braun: The number of UX teams that are either not doing research or barely doing minimal research is troubling. It is important to remember that the ‘U’ in UX is the user, and conducting research with participants that match your target demographic is the very best way to understand their experience and identify ways to improve it. Simply put, you are not conducting user-centered design if you aren’t doing the necessary research. You may be designing an experience for your users, but without the required information derived from the research, you are leaving the door open for your competition to create a better experience and take your customers.
If you ask anyone who has spent any time conducting UX research, my guess is they will tell you that one of the hardest challenges to deal with is recruiting participants. It isn’t enough to talk to customers who already love you — they will often have the same blind spots your team has. Having access to a global community of high-quality candidates that can be reached quickly, consistently and cost-effectively is the gold standard.
If you ask anyone who has spent any time conducting UX research, my guess is they will tell you that one of the hardest challenges to deal with is recruiting participants.
I’ve conducted studies with people from all around the world. One thing they all have in common is that they bring a unique perspective. It might be something in your taxonomy or information architecture that ends up being the issue, or it might be a color or symbol that carries a meaning you didn’t intend. Whatever the issue is, being able to test with real users sourced from the same locations your company services gives your team the highest likelihood of identifying the issue and validating your solution.
What are some memorable experiences you’ve had working with Applause, and what did you take away from that time?
Braun: Other than learning a lot from Applause’s Senior Director of UX Inge De Bleecker and Director of Delivery Bob Farrell along the way, all of my most memorable experiences relate to either the process or the findings of the studies we conducted.
In some cases, I found myself shocked that a specific large brand was making some basic process mistakes in their approach to testing that we were able to identify and resolve before kicking off the initiative. Previous to working with those really large brands, I had the perception that they would be doing everything right, and there wouldn’t be much room for us to add value. What I’ve learned is that there is a real shortage of UX research expertise, and companies large and small can benefit from working directly with a company like Applause, where studies like this are the primary focus every day.
In other cases, I was very happy to be able to share with customers that we uncovered findings that no one had anticipated. One that stands out specifically was with a luxury apparel brand that was trying to boost sales of their men’s clothing lines. They could see via their sales numbers and analytics that their men’s clothing wasn’t getting the attention they had hoped it would, but they didn’t know why.
Many participants in the study used the search functionality instead of the main navigation bar and what we discovered while observing those sessions was that the search functionality wasn’t configured to include men’s clothing in the findings. If a participant searched for “Men’s leather belt,” the results would show leather belts but they would all be women’s belts. Users trust the results of a site search, so they assume that there weren’t any men’s leather belts available.
It is moments like that, where you know the finding is going to provide a concrete answer to the client’s question, that feel great and stand out in my memory years later. What is great about this type of research is that you uncover issues like that all the time, so you not only get to provide a lot of value to your clients, but you also get to go home feeling like you did a great job.
I love working in UX, and I love it, even more, when I know for sure the work I’m doing is having a positive impact on businesses and the users they serve.
What do you want people to know about your new book?
Braun: I wrote From Chaos to Concept: A Team Oriented Approach to Designing World Class Products and Experiences to help bridge the UX knowledge gap that I see in many teams. Many teams are doing the tactical UX work, including wireframes, storyboards and prototypes, but there isn’t a direct connection to the higher-level strategies and objectives. I’m hoping this book will help not only make a strong connection between UX Strategy and Design, but also help teams avoid many common pitfalls.
If you are a designer, developer, product owner or student looking to get into any of these professions, this book will provide you with the methods and tools necessary to enable your teams to design and build experiences customers love and avoid the primary reasons software projects fail.
Readers will learn how to use goals, strategies and measurable objectives refined with personas, scenarios and use cases to create useful, usable and beautiful user experiences. The book covers both UX strategy and execution, and will help UX teams not only improve top-line revenue by creating products users love but also improve the bottom line by creating operational efficiencies.
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