UX Tea Break: Are you a Positivist or an Interpretivist user researcher?

UX Tea Break: Are you a Positivist or an Interpretivist user researcher?


In this episode of the UX Tea Break, I ask
you a question, which is: Are you a positivist or an interpretivist user researcher? So this question came about from an Instagram
post I made this week which was taken when I was running a training course in London.
The training course I was running was aimed at senior user researchers and the purpose
of it is to improve their impact as user researchers. One of the workshop activities we do on the
training course is ask this particular question, whether you’re a positivist or an interpretivist.
And a few people when they saw the post on Instagram asked if I would make that publicly
available. So I’ve done that: if you look in the discussion below you’ll find the questions.
And if that’s all you’re interested in you can stop watching the video now and you can
take the quiz. If you want to find out a bit more detail behind it that’s what I wanted
to turn to now. Now that workshop itself is based on a pretty
famous diagram in the field of user research. That diagram, I’ll put on screen now, is by
Christian Rohrer. And Christian Rohrer classified the various types of user research methods
on a couple of dimensions. One dimension is whether the research method is quantitative
or qualitative. In other words, whether it tells us what’s happening or it tells us why
something’s happening. And the other dimension is whether it measures user behavior or whether
it measures users’ attitudes. As you can see you end up with research methods in different
quadrants. Now, on the course what we do is we recreate that diagram. But it’s more than
that, because one thing I get people to examine is their own epistemological biases. What
I mean by that is that some of us — depending on our education or our training, the kind
of life experiences — we have a different… we have a particular perspective about the
way knowledge should be accumulated in the world. So for example my own background: I did a
psychology BSc and as a consequence the training that I had was quite positivist in outlook.
In other words, the focus was very much on running experiments, testing hypotheses and
trying to uncover laws of human behavior. Now that positivist approach comes from the
tradition of physics and chemistry where it’s obviously got a fantastic history and it works
well there. The problem is when it’s applied to human behavior: sometimes it’s not quite
as neat as that. People don’t often behave the way you might expect them to. That’s not
to say there aren’t laws in psychology — Hick’s law and Fitts’ law are a couple of laws that
are relevant to people that work in the field of UX design — but the point is that often
behavior depends on context. So the same person may behave in a different way if the context
is different or two similar people may behave in different ways in the same context for
reasons that are due to other artefacts. In other words, there’s no single truth in the
world when we’re looking at human behavior. That’s another extreme, and that extreme is
interpretivism. Now depending on where you sit on that scale
it’s going to determine what kind of research methods you prefer to carry out. If you’re
positivist in outlook then you’re more likely to focus on things like A/B testing, summative
usability testing, first-click metrics: things that provide numbers and measure how people
behave in a particular situation, because you believe there’s a kind of a fundamental
truth there to be uncovered. If you’re more interpretivist in outlook, you’ll be looking
at things like contextual inquiry, ethnography, field visits. Things where you’re able to
see different people’s perspectives and understand their different stories and the way things
go together. Now in my experience, the best user researchers
tend to use mixed methods. In other words, they use some of the methods that you might
think of as positivist in outlook and some use the methods that you might think of interpretivist
in outlook. If you’re a mixed-methods person, you’ll discover that when you do the quiz
below because you’ll have probably an even mix of both left and right answers. In that
case, you’re probably a post-positivist. Now another reason for considering your own
epistemological outlook is it may be different from your teams’. Your team may have a view
that all research that’s done should be positivist because of their own background. If that’s
the case, and you’re trying to convince them with research that comes from the interpretivist
tradition, it’s going to be harder for you to persuade them and bring them over to your
side. So you may want to combine some of the interpretivist research you do with also the
kind of methods that might persuade them that you’re on the right track so that your research
has got meaning to them. Well I hope you found that useful. If you
did, I’d be interested in your answers to the quiz, please post them below. And if you
have any questions you’d like me to answer in future tea-break videos, please post them
below as well.

One thought on “UX Tea Break: Are you a Positivist or an Interpretivist user researcher?

  1. Interesting take on UX Research, David! I'm enjoying your posts as well as your book. Very thoughtful! Thanks for posting!

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