Beyond Empathy 2: The limits of the UX

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In the first article of this series we made a brief introduction to the history of how the term “user” arose and how the notion of “user experience” ended up becoming a central figure in the field of design and in the technological industry as a whole. 

 

In this article we want to review the main criticisms that have been raised against a certain approach to UX that has crystallized in the field of design in recent years. These criticisms have to do both with the definition of UX and the limits it contains, and with the methodological challenges faced by qualitative research specifically when applied to product design and development environments within companies.

Who is the user?

In general terms, the definition of UX crystallized around 3 elements and how these are related to each other: the “user” and the “experience” of that person in relation to a “product”, service or company. One of the criticisms of this approach is that all the complexity of people and the world seems to have been reduced to a scenario where there are only relationships of use and consumption within a market context. 

Also, it has been pointed out the individualistic bias that it seems to entail, by focusing on the singular figure of a user and their individual experience, without considering the social and cultural contexts to which they belong. In essence, the main criticism is based on the idea that the notion of “user” makes an excessively small cut out of people’s reality, and in doing so erases crucial aspects of their relationships both with objects in their environment and with other individuals. This is considered a great loss for analysis, and in particular for qualitative research, a field that has traditionally drawn on contextual richness to produce dense descriptions of it.

It has been pointed out the individualistic bias that it seems to entail, by focusing on the singular figure of a user and their individual experience, without considering the social and cultural contexts to which they belong

Methodological challenges

The second issue we want to talk about in this article has to do with the methodological difficulties encountered in qualitative research in the field of UX.

Among the most common challenges that have been extensively discussed elsewhere, we will mention two: the false expectations created around this type of research and the ways in which the results are translated for the business context. 

 

In the first case, we refer to the often mistaken expectations that surround this type of research, as the researcher is expected to provide solid, irrefutable evidence and conclusive statements based on a large sample. This kind of expectation reflects a misunderstanding about the kind of results that can be expected from user-centered design, since the insights generated by this practice are not always uniquely measurable or necessarily scalable. 

 

The second problem is related to the translation that the researcher is forced to carry out when presenting the results in the form of “deliverables”. These reports usually contain only the main insights and validated concepts, and this is something that can affect their quality, since often a large part of the richness and complexity that sustain the results ends up being lost in this translation effort. For example, it is common for developers and product managers to tend to stick to those questions that indicate a clear and specific direction for the product, instead of broader questions. However, in general, these are issues that represent a small methodological and conceptual challenge, and therefore have less disruptive potential for innovation. 

Unkept promises?

In this way, an approach that originally promised to understand the user from a more holistic and radical perspective (in the sense of going to the root), and to bring a broad transformative potential, often in practice turns out to be a version very simplified of what is proposed, without major impacts on the creation processes or on the product vision. 

It has even been argued that the link between design and the social sciences has operated as a double-edged sword. While it allowed fields like anthropology to have a greater impact in corporate contexts that had been traditionally closed to them, at the same time, it led researchers to change their practices in directions that were not always aligned with core aspects of their discipline. In other words, what began as an opportunity that researchers hoped to use to shape the company, ended up imposing a particular shape on them.

An approach that originally promised to understand the user from a more holistic and radical perspective (in the sense of going to the root), and to bring a broad transformative potential, often in practice turns out to be a version very simplified of what is proposed.

But then, as UX researchers, what margin do we have? Despite the arguments that point out the limitations of user-centered design and the “cooptation” of the discipline by companies, we would like to raise this question: is there a space that we can occupy in a (more) fruitful way? We are convinced that the answer is ‘Yes’, and that there is still a large margin of agency if we imagine the figure of the researcher not as someone who “extracts” knowledge from their study subjects, but rather as someone with the potential to “mediate” within a mesh of complex relationships between different actors (users, technology and companies). We will talk more about this in the next article.

References

AMIREBRAHIMI, S. (2016). The Rise of the User and the Fall of People: Ethnographic Cooptation and a New Language of Globalization. Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, pp. 71-103

BATTARBEE, K. & KOSKINEN, I. (2005). Co-experience: user experience as interaction, CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts, 1: 1, 5-18.

POSTMA, CE, ZWARTKRUIS-PELGRIM, E., DAEMEN, E., & DU, J. (2012). Challenges of doing empathic design: Experiences from industry. International Journal of Design, 6 (1), 59-70.