Expressing the value of (ux)research and design

Bulls eye

Here are some reflections after internal discussions that I think can be general enough to share. It has some hooks to a previous post about user experience in corporate research. The thing is that we seem to repeat almost the same discussion at the beginning of every project. It’s about goals and targets. In modern business management practice the necessity of quantifiable targets and the measuring of those seem to be almost indisputable. But what exactly should be measured? And if (when), after a while someone (I) throw in a question about why, the discussion quickly derails into much more complex matters and become a conversation about 'value'. Consensus is not even remotely close. Ever. Some will always understand value as something instrumental and others perceive it as something intrinsic, hinting to an underlying friction between a reductionistic versus holistic approach for how to view the world. Or something like that.

In user experience research and design we deal with volatile materials such as human behaviour, culture, emotion and perception, using fuzzy instruments such as empathy, experience and creativity. Anyone who work within so called "soft" areas will probably recognise the pedagocial challenge of describing the 'real' value of their work in a language that can be understood by dogged pragmatists. The difficulty is partly in not having common unambiguous terminology. The risk is that the target measurements themselves become the perceived goal, which causes "real" value to be drained. Seth Godin who appeared in our Future of Learning film, wrote something analog to this in a recent blog post: "What's it for?". To paraphrase: if the answer to that question is "to write x number of papers and patents" rather than "because it's valuable, important and meaningful", then something is not quite as it should.

We must simply be aware that the language we use can cause a lot of value to be lost in translation. Likewise, the measurements we use, relying only on quantifiable and punctual targets and goals inherited from industrial production can make the significance of the outcome evaporable. This is probably the case in corporate research as well as in academia or education. Godin again:

"industrialization and time suck the art out of so many things".

We don't make art, but I would love to be able to translate the following into general businesslingo and measurables:

"the project goal is to explore relevant phenomena and then perform creative leaps that inspire cultural innovation, influence our society and generate a multitude of informed hunches across industries".

Photo (cc) by Eder Capobianco, found on flickr

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