Jane Murison believes that all digital designers need to be not only be able to create great things, but be able scientifically test them too.
As head of user experience and design at the BBC, Jane has a team of around 120 who design apps such as CBeebies Story Time (above) and experimental websites like iWonder – and offers UX guidance and research and testing for the BBC’s digital services such as online news.
I caught up with Jane just after she’d spoken at a small conference organised by UX software company Userzoom. In her talk, she discussed how she’d got all of the designers in her department to also be UX researchers – testing their work to refine it and make it better, whether by using focus groups or putting a project live and using analytics and A/B testing.
Jane initially got designers involved with user research as a way to increase the amount of research being done in-house without hiring more specialists in that area – which she wasn’t able to do – and reducing spend on external research. But she says that even if she’d had a bigger budget or the ability to hire more researchers, it would still have been the right thing to do.
“I think that [design and research] is an integrated practice,” she says. “I think that good user experience designers should be using research as one of their toolkits. It's great to have some specialists – and I wouldn't ever want to get rid of mine - but if having research specialists means that your designers aren't doing any research, that's a problem. That means that their practice is getting worse not better.”
The need to be humble
Being able to test their designs using research requires a certain level of humility. You’re not trying to make something work, you’re trying to make it fail so you can go back and refine it to make it better. To be able to do this, it means you can’t be precious – designers need to believe that what they’ve created isn’t perfect, but just a really good first step towards it.
“It fundamentally depends on the creator or the design team to know that it needs to be broken down or criticised in order to be improved,” says Jane. “It's about knowing your limitations and your biases. Confirmation bias is one of the many biases that we all carry around with us all the time. If we can look at it and go ‘Yes, I have that. How can I guard against it rather than try to pretend it isn't there?’ – then you're going to end up creating better design.”
Instilling this understanding in designers isn’t just about changing the perception of individuals. Equally important is team culture.
“If you're surrounded by a group of people that are all violently defending their designs, you're going to fall into line with that,” says Jane. “If you've got a group of people that are all coming in saying I don't know if it's right, but I'll give it a shot and then we'll go and see [if it is]. They're behaving openly and with creative confidence about their work, and that's the better place to be.”
By creative confidence, Jane means having belief in your own skills as a designer to find a path to the best possible solution. She says that those who lack that confidence are more likely to defend their own work for the sake of it, taking flaws personally.
Start early to avoid disappointment
One of the ways Jane believes help reduce friction around testing is to start testing ideas as soon as possible – as soon as a prototype can be constructed.
“If you've been sitting in a corner polishing something for six weeks and then someone comes along and tells you what's wrong with it, you've invested so much time and energy into it [that you’re bound to be defensive]. You test it early, then it's not as painful to hear that it's bad because you can make another one on a post-it note the next day.”
Another key benefit to early research is that what it reveals can inspire ideas that end up being core to the purpose or methods of interaction – ideas you’d never get to working on a blank piece of paper.
“We're trying to make space for more open-ended, formative research early in projects,” says Jane. “Before the proposition is properly defined, we can look at the audience and understand a bit about them and maybe find some unexpected insight.
So what has the teams’ recent research inspired Jane to look into as potential new projects for her team?
“Right now, trends around habit-forming user interfaces are really interesting – especially habit-forming for good, how that can improve our understanding of our own health and well-being, and our understanding of the world around us.
“For example, [how] school children learn how to revise, so we can support kids that might not be getting the support that they need at home – in order to get where they need to get. We might be able to improve the educational label of the whole country if we could find the right interaction and habit – the right user experience – to create goods habit around revision and studying.”
That’s a lofty aspiration, but one that’s not out of reach for the BBC, considering its success with education services such as BBC Bitesize and how iPlayer has changed how we watch TV – at a scale that still dwarfs the likes of both newcomers like Netflix and Amazon Prime and rival traditional broadcasters’ streaming options like ITV Player and All4.