User Researcher, Optimal Workshop
"...the role of design and information architecture is to be invisible – to emphasize content without obstructing it.."
Wellington, New Zealand
How did you get into user research?
I’ve always wanted to work at the intersection of human behavior and technology. Straight out of University (where I studied Psychology), I started my career as a Questionnaire Designer at Statistics New Zealand where I worked on designing surveys for collecting national statistics.
At the time, we were going through a shift from paper to digital data collection, which gave me the opportunity to do a range of usability testing of online forms. The process of feeding basic human needs into complex systems really fascinated me, and I decided to seek out an opportunity to make research an integral part of my role, which is when Optimal Workshop came along.
What do you like most about it?
User research is revelatory on many levels. I enjoy continuously testing my own assumptions, often being wrong and learning from the process.
It teaches you to be humble and empathetic – two qualities I think we could all benefit from cultivating further.
I enjoy the challenge of finding common threads in people’s needs and looking at the different ways the technology we build can empower them.
How do you think content strategists could make better use of user research?
Once at a conference, I heard the phrase “Content first, because everything else is window dressing.” It didn’t sit well with me at first, but after some time I realized that the role of design and information architecture is to be invisible – to emphasize content without obstructing it.
For me, testing content is just as important as testing the visual design or information architecture of our website. A beautiful and seamless design doesn’t make for a great user experience. A great user experience is when someone can find the information they are looking for and walk away confidently knowing they understood it.
I love the idea of spending as much time designing the words we use as we do the visual and structural side. This article by Angela Colter does a great job of explaining the importance of content testing – and if there is one thing I think content strategy could learn from research, this is it.
You recently spoke on card sorting at the IA Summit here in Chicago. What are some new applications for card sorting that content strategists might use?
My talk focused on how something as familiar as an online card sort can have many different applications, outside of just information architecture. Some ideas that I think are particularly relevant for content strategists include:
1. Understand brand voice and tone
Source a variety of adjectives that may describe your brand (Brand Deck is a great set). Ask your users to sort these into categories such as “[Your brand] is”, “[Your brand] is not” and “Does not apply”).
This will give you an understanding of how your users view your brand, and whether it aligns with how you want to be perceived.
2. Crowdsourcing content ideas
This is an example we used when planning the UX New Zealand conference in 2016, but it can apply to any place that involves the creation of content, whether it’s an event or blog.
We sent out a closed card sort to our community asking them to group potential topics into groups that either interested them or didn’t. This helped us narrow down the focus of our event and select relevant speakers.
It was highly effective and helped us get a better understanding of our audience and their preferences, making sure we’re delivering content that is not only of a high quality, but also as relevant as possible.
3. As an internal consultation tool
Closed card sorting is a great tool for quickly involving others in the decision making process, capturing the voice of a wider group without the need for face-to-face meetings. You can use it with external or internal users or stakeholders to help answer questions like:
Where should we start?
What is the most important thing we should work on?
Where should this content live?
What are our desired project outcomes?
Where do we focus our efforts?
What needs the most work?
For more ideas on creative ways to use card sorting, you can check out my slides from IA Summit 2018 here.
Your IA Summit bio said you are inspired by the intersections between technology, design and human behavior. Can you give some examples of interesting findings you’ve seen? Or something that might surprise us about how people behave?
I’ve always been interested in information processing and how imperfect we are all when it comes to making sense of the world around us.
We all use shortcuts (aka heuristics) to help us make efficient judgements and decisions, and we’re all riddled with biases that we cannot control. To get an idea of just how many factors may be influencing our judgement at any time, I recommend checking out the Cognitive Bias Codex from Buster Benson.
I think it’s important to have an appreciation for how imperfect, irrational and unpredictable humans can be in navigating the world around them, and acknowledge that while design can help guide behavior, you can’t never truly design someone’s experience for them.
It’s an interesting challenge designing with cognitive limitations in mind, and it’s something worth paying attention in our own work too. Becoming more aware of our own intrinsic biases can help us a lot in reframing how we view problems and solutions in our work and daily life.