Science or Myth, Which is More Dangerous?

On May 11 The Atlantic published an article by Ben McAllister, a strategist at Frog Design, which was clearly intended to grab attention and raise eyebrows in the UX community: The ‘Science’ of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea.

Aside from the sensationalist title, I agree with his overall claim:

“Design, like the world as a whole, is unpredictable and messy. If you think it boils down to ‘research’, you’re mistaken.”

Clearly, the world does not consist of observations found only though research and phenomena continue to remain unexplained. However I am extremely concerned that Ben missed the point by oversimplifying scientific research as ‘dangerous’ to design and is potentially propagating myth that can harm the perception of User Experience.

I believe most UX professionals would agree with sentiment that it doesn’t all boil down to research, simply because most teams don’t use only research findings to make decisions. But user research can be one useful input into decision making. This is because well constructed, quality research, which is clear about its limitations, can provide a sense of confidence and perspective that supplements and helps to further support creative endeavors and discoveries not destroy them. Ben claims:

“The allure of ‘research’ is that it provides a way out of considering hard truths”

To the contrary, in my years as a user experience researcher I have found that my findings have more often than not been hard to swallow, ‘inconvenient truths’ for teams to integrate. It is a difficult endeavor, and it can be unpleasant. Most of the time, I strive to deliver knowledge about the way people live their lives that forces folks in industry to NOT look the other way from the ‘hard truths’ that are convenient to their business strategies and product designs. I report to my teams about problems, issues, and misunderstandings in users’ lives that generate new insights and ways of thinking, and most of the time I would not have been able to capture these insights without constructing knowledge claims based in a theoretical perspective. This approach gives me a sense of confidence that what I am gathering is based in knowledge. The methods we as researchers use include qualitative (read: phenomena, rich description) and quantitative (read: proper sampling, construct validity and data quality etc.) research, and there new and hybrid methods as well. Either objective/empirical (i.e. “scientific”) or subjective/narrative data, it’s really too bad that Ben didn’t use this opportunity to raise awareness of how these tools can interpreted to be incredibly useful and of their harmonious relationship with Design.

Instead, Ben makes an unclear connection between the research that businesses do with something called ‘Scientism’ which he identifies as a ‘charade’ and associates with the absurd joke known as ‘truthiness’. I find this to be a much too easy and disappointing line of thought from a UX professional, a kind of “see-which-wet-noodle-of-pop-culture-I can-fling-against-this-blog-and-make-it-stick” comment. It becomes especially confusing in that in his comments, Ben claims to be a practicing researcher as well.  I wonder about Ben’s research methods and how he understands them to represent knowledge claims.

In response to another perception that I find potentially harmful, sound research is something that can be learned and applied by everyone and does not need to be considered as the “shadowy scientific other”.  In the past week I had the pleasure of teaching a very strategy-minded tech startup co-founder how to conduct his own user research based in both qualitative and quantitative traditions, keeping in mind their limitations. The result is that now his small start up now has its own efficient, reliable, and reusable tool to understand and measure uses and users with a sense of confidence in the richness, representativeness, and reliability of the results.A strong UX professional can teach a man to fish using practical knowledge based in theory and scientific principle; no danger involved.

Lastly Ben claims that the autonomous actions of individuals can’t be understood through scientific research, making its supposed counterpart design, so much more important:

“The real world is a complex system inhabited by autonomous individuals. It isn’t so simple or knowable, which is exactly why design can be so valuable.”

While not empirical, qualitative research is a research tradition nonetheless. It is one that is steeped in punk rock, anti-rationalist thought, consistent with what Ben is trying to say here. Qualitative research is based in the theoretical stance that a single individual’s perspective and experience matters, and that meaning can come from outside of one single, agreed upon reality. The bulk of design researchers actually do this kind of inquiry, with a theoretical basis consistent with inquiry into the human and social sciences (Anthropology, Linguistics, Feminism and Gender studies). I think that feels very hip, creative, and not too science-y at all.

If you are willing to take the time to understand epistemology and the foundation of knowledge claims (WHY and HOW we know what we have come to know) you will see that as UX professionals our choice isn’t either sound research OR design. They are harmonious and help each other to flourish and evolve. It may not be as controversial or attention grabbing to state it as such, but our choice should be to strive to understand and educate the balance and of sound research and design rather than propagate myth that may mislead and discourage the value of research + design in User Experience.