What can user researchers learn from reality TV?


Back to the Floor

In the late 90s, there was a reality TV show on BBC2 called Back to the Floor. In the show, a senior manager would spend a few days working in a more regular role in their company. A typical episode might feature the boss of Sainsbury’s stacking shelves, working on a checkout, getting hassled by customers and so on. There was an element of fish-out-of-water comedy to the show, sort of like a reverse My Fair Lady. But there was also an element of drama from seeing how first-hand experience made such a strong impact on the bosses. These were powerful people who were normally sheltered from the realities of life on the ground. Taken outside of their bubble, they would suddenly realise that they needed to sort out the little things that make everyday life a pain for shop staff and customers.

There’s a similar motive behind introducing user experience activities into an organisation. Technology workers in particular can easily find themselves building products in a bubble, with limited input from the users of those products. Without a concerted effort to get user input, these teams find themselves solving problems that don’t concern end users, or putting out products with usability flaws hiding in plain sight. Inside the organisational bubble, an interface might seem well-designed and intuitive. But to people outside, it can seem confusing and unintuitive.

User research and the importance of direct access

We have a wide range of activities at our disposal that mitigate against this by bringing users into the design process. Usability tests, interviews, focus groups and so on are all ways of hearing what a user has to say and seeing how they interact with the product that you’re making.

Jared Spool has argued that product teams should be getting direct experience of what users are doing and saying in these activities:

“Each team member has to be exposed directly to the users themselves. Teams that have dedicated user research professionals, who watch the users, then in turn, report the results through documents or videos, don’t deliver the same benefits. It’s from the direct exposure to the users that we see the improvements in the design.”

Why is this? Maybe it’s because first-hand experience of design problems is more memorable than just hearing about them. And if a design problem sticks in your mind, you’re more likely to put the effort in that’s required to fix it.

But what’s the best thing to do when product teams can’t or won’t make time for this sort of direct exposure? As user researchers, how do we effectively communicate the experience of users to an audience that haven’t met them?

Learning from journalism

This is where user researchers have something to learn from people working in other fields. In particular, I think we can learn from journalists, and with that in mind, I want to take a quick look at how vox pop interviews have been evolving recently in broadcast news.

Vox pops are typically inserted into news items to add variety to the reporting. The reporter tells the story, interviews a politician or two, and then we see some clips where members of the public give their view. These members of the public are usually nameless and only get to say a sentence or two. The way these interviews are cut into a report means viewers are unlikely to get much insight about the issue. At most, the presence of a vox pop is just an acknowledgement that people on the street have opinions about the topic being discussed.

But in the last few years, John Harris at the Guardian has taken vox pops somewhere interesting. In his occasional web series Anywhere But Westminster, Harris travels around the country talking to people in the street about political issues. He gives people time to explain their ideas, he challenges what they say, and he asks them why they believe what they do. Added together, the videos build an interesting picture of what’s happening politically outside of the Westminster bubble. It’s edited highlights, but you get a feeling that you’ve had some exposure to the political views of  everyday people.

As an aside, one thing I like about the series is the way John works as a proxy for the confused viewer. He’s present in his reporting in a way that draws on Hunter S. Thompson and Nick Broomfield. Maybe it’s just a personal preference, but I like that. It helps thread the stories together, and prevents the films from being a confusing stream of people giving endless opinions.

Ultimately, I think Anywhere But Westminster succeeds as a format. It’s interesting and informative, and some of the techniques could be applied to how user research can be presented back to their colleagues.

That said, we should probably be wary of adopting the format wholesale. Edited videos are more watchable, but they’re also more prone to bias. A video editor can interview lots of people and then cherry pick the clips that tell a particular story. The same goes for text. This is fine for journalism, because there’s always going to be a motive to entertain there, and stories told with some bias are generally more entertaining those without. But research is supposed to be more neutral. Maybe that’s one of the benefits of the direct exposure Jared Spool is advocating: it reduces people’s skepticism that the findings are distorted by the researcher’s bias.

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