User experience: When you need to know something, show something, and solve everyday problems

User experience (UX) is a broad field that focuses on how people use software, systems, and services. I practice an adjacent field, known as learning experience (LX) which has overlapping design and research methods. As a Learning Technologist I use my LX skills to investigate, understand, and solve a variety of learning-focused problems. This relies on a professional toolbox stocked full of methods for digging into problems and then designing better solutions.

Explore, know, and show

I am going to share design and research methods that I have used to solve problems and enhance student and staff experiences. In my domain, a ‘problem’ is the underlying reason for a change e.g., a software update, or the introduction of a new service. Design methods can provide strategies for thinking about a problem on your own, or with a group of people. Methods can also provide ways of gathering feedback and showing your thinking to stakeholders and senior managers. Some of the methods may feel familiar, as they derive from anthropology, psychology, and social sciences.

Example from practice: Individual reflective research for uncovering opportunities

I needed to introduce a new accessibility tool as part of the VLE. Early on, I drew the customer value chain map below (based on Kalbach, 2016). The map explores the value of the new accessibility tool for different user groups. I later showed a version to colleagues to ask for feedback on my reasoning. The final version of the value chain map helped explain the benefits to users and learners.

On left original pen drawing showing a service with benefits such as alternative formats for students and accessibility feedback for staff. Final version with the same content created as a digital drawing on the right.]
Explore: Customer value chain map based on Kalbach, (2016) used to explore the value of introducing a new accessibility tool. Original pen drawing shown on left. Polished digital drawing on the right shows the same information and the indirect value for the libraries for copyright compliance.

What is it you want to understand or know?

I needed to introduce a new version of an electronic marking tool. So, it was important to understand how the current version of the tool was being used. I do not mark student work, so I asked academic colleagues for help. I conducted video interviews including verbal walkthroughs. This allowed me to observe the marking process and helped me to better understand:

  • staff actions or jobs while marking
  • thought processes
  • guiding principles
  • the types of issues identified in student work
Complex hand drawn diagram explained in the image caption
Know: flow of activities starting with video interviews, followed by a written interview transcript. and a chart showing click activities when using software. Then example statements for a job or action: when I am [context], to help me [motivation push/pull], so I can [outcome]. A functional test list comes from the job statement followed by video and written web tutorials.

This research activity was part of service evaluation and resulted in rich output. I analysed the interview recordings to understand interactions (click analysis) and produce transcripts. I used the transcripts to compile jobs-to-be-done statements, a user experience design method. These statements explained the actions, motivations, and the desired outcomes. This supported software testing and creation of improved tutorial materials for students.

Who are your audience?

Understand your audience when you explore a problem. Start with existing research to explore this area, e.g., institutional survey data, usage statistics. Then feed this data, alongside qualitative feedback from open text answers and interviews, into a user experience design method like empathy mapping. This works well as a group activity. I used an empathy map when I designed new workshops for staff during the height of the pandemic in 2020. I wanted my designs to consider the context of work and the pressure that staff were under at that time. As an added point, I tend to avoid the persona aspect of this method due to potential for stereotyping and bias. I prefer to use anonymised first-person testimonials based on feedback and interviews alongside the mapping.

Illustration of a table with post-it notes, pens and an Empathy Map poster on it, the poster has a person’s face in the middle. The top section of the post says, ‘Thinking and Feeling, the right section says ‘Hearing’, the bottom section says ‘Name’ and ‘About’ and the left section says ‘Seeing’ and ‘Saying’.
An empathy map is a way to think about a segment of an audience. It is a good way to think about the different experiences of your service users. The persona segment is shown in the ‘name’ and ‘about’ section in the template illustrated above, I do not use this in my practice. For more on empathy mapping, see Brignull (2016).

If you need to show your thinking, who are you showing it to?

The answer to this question may well determine the technique you select. For instance, a user journey map is a way to visualise a service experience. Complete the map by involving a range of stakeholders and use it to find gaps, illustrating areas of need. This can then support your work with those who manage resources at your organisation.

Illustration of a User Journey Map which is formatted as a grid and pinned on a wall, the top row of the grid includes the steps: research, save, read, compare, write. The left-hand column includes actions, questions, high points, pain points, opportunity.]
Show: A user journey map for thinking about a process involving steps and actions. The mapping process uncovers successes, frustrations, and potential opportunities for improving the process. For a brief introduction, see Brignull (2016).

Conclusion

Learning experience, and the user experience methods it draws upon, can be a force for good in higher education. If you decide to use these methods, you should also follow the results. This can mean disrupting accepted assumptions. Particularly in relation to accessibility, equality, equity, and bias. You also need to consider the methods you select and their origins (Seale, Hicks, and Nicholson, 2022). Ask yourself, does this method investigate a problem? Or might it perpetuate existing structural issues? Find opportunities to collaborate with academic and professional colleagues who want to solve problems too. Check out this list of methods (Teixeira, 2021) and start with small problems in your own area. UCISA’s UX Community of Practice is a great way to connect with other user experience practitioners in Higher Education. There are also local user experience meet-up groups across the UK.


Fiona MacNeill is a former Learning Technologist and a current Learning Experience Specialist based in Brighton. Fiona’s Website | @fmacneill on Twitter.

References

Brignull, H. (2016) ‘How to run an empathy and user journey mapping workshop’, Harry Brignull on Medium, 4 January.

Kalbach, J. (2016) Mapping experiences – a guide to creating value through journeys, blueprints, and diagrams. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media Inc.

Seale, M., Hicks, A., and Nicholson, K. (2022). Toward a critical turn in library UX. College & Research Libraries, 83(1), 6. doi:10.5860/crl.83.1.6 Teixeira, F. (2021). ‘A comprehensive list of UX design methods and deliverables’, UX Collective on Medium, 18 January

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