The validity issue of feedback

Sometimes I come across an article that I wish everyone managing/evaluating others would read.
What has bothered me about feedback is the self-centered quality of the act of giving, no matter how well-meaning the giver: the assumption that someone with their own history, biases, and preoccupations owns the truth, knows better, and once feedback is given, the recipient will absorb the “objective truth”, and will be closer to approximating the ideal.
As a parent of two teenagers, I am guilty of doling out well-meant feedback, and I have been recognizing how the feedback I give is often more about me than them (as they are quick to point out). I am becoming aware that my “feedback” is just my personal reaction, which they can consider as one voice out of many. I love how the authors reframe feedback as a personal reaction as opposed to a gift that you have to take and be grateful for and provide some really handy examples (to be printed out and put on my wall).


I have been in the workforce now for a while and worked with/under some wonderful managers, and under some that are still trying to find their way there. Interestingly almost all of them were middle-aged women. I noticed that some managed to turn any constellation of people into a great team, others needed to handpick their own loyal army of supporters, and again others ended up with a high turnover and attrition.

The notion of leader, or leadership has intrigued me for a few decades. First I thought of it as a strictly American phenomenon, as the word simply does not exist in my mother tongue (Hungarian), and as far as a know it is not a word one throws around with abandon in German either – Fuehrer has a bad ring to it. My first encounter with the tem was the result of an American guest speaker at my alma mater in Hungary, who was rehashing Blanchett’s 10 minute manager. I was in awe, not knowing any better. Why? Because it gave me a vocabulary to think with about what makes an organization functional and inspiring. (you can’t help but wonder why this term is so American ….)

So, without a lot of secondary research, here are my thoughts about what is the magic sauce to the teams with great leaders. What do the managers/team leaders do differently from their less successful and more miserable counterparts?

  1. First and foremost, they are not the center of their team. Instead, they make sure that everyone has a respected voice and team members are not defined by their relationship to the managers.
  2. They see themselves as translators when after a meeting with other stakeholders: they share their learning. They do not yield their knowledge as a weapon but are transparently sharing.Better informed collaborators accomplish higher quality work because
    1. they have a clearer understanding of what needs to be done
    2. they feel empowered

A straightforward litmus test: if you were to get sick/kidnapped for a week, could you team stay productive? Or would they collapse without your directives? Are they all supporting you, or is the team members all support each other?

The validity problem in UX Research

All aspiring UX researchers and designers start their training by learning about the classic tool of usability testing as the cornerstone of learning about the pain points users face when trying to complete their goal using an application. Standard curriculum stuff, really because it can be done badly, and/or professionally. Granted, there is some disagreement about certain features in the middle (does the researcher need to behave like an automaton to be objective, do they need to display a bleeding heart to show their immense empathy with the user?). That is fodder for another post (story: I was criticized once for being too happy to see the participant in a session. Whatever. These are minutiae.

The fundamental question is: Can we trust anything we learn from usability sessions?

My answer is … well, take it with a big chunk of salt. A usability session is the most artificial setting, when a participant is given ample time, an incentive to focus on a very focused aspect of an application, in a quiet, calm setting, enjoying the special attention they receive from the researcher (and maybe even more people behind the looking glass), while told to relax, as there could be no harmful consequences of anything they do or say.

Needless to say, when most of us try to use an app

  • we are short on time
  • our attention is divided by competing websites and notifications and screaming children/spouse, and phone calls
  • in a noisy grocery store, playground, etc.
  • trying to hold on to a stroller/wallet/ pushcart
  • we don’t have the glasses with us
  • mistakes are costly and
  • nobody is there to make us feel special

I guess we are all aware of this, how our environment is really not letting us focus on what we are trying to accomplish. If only we had time and quiet, we could focus, and get whatever we need to get done in no time. RIght? All we UX researchers need to do to make our sessions more authentic is to provide a lot of noise, some tote bags, blurry screens, and yell at the participants to speed it up, we don’t have all day. Well, not so fast. Turns out, it is not just the external environment that makes these sessions far from a realistic use of the app. TBC

Recent research however shows that even when we are actively using our computers, Wtrying to get something done, we change what we see on our screens by clicking on a different tab, or apps every 13 seconds !!!! The finding that our attention span being shorter than that of a goldfish is an often-cited meme but most people associate that with social media browsing, designing to just dip our toes into some content, then move on to something else.

Leo Yeykelis et al.’s study participants, however, recorded over four days, engaged in all kinds of activities, including work and watching videos did not, as expected, complete one task (such as reading an article or watching a video) before moving on to the next one. Instead, they kept on switching from one activity to the other, from starting a transaction, then switching to .something else, then back again. This was true for every single participant in the study, indicating that it is not just people with severe ADHD who flitter around from one attractive website to another. While participants’ screenograms (the highly individual composition and sequence of screens visited) varied widely, and no two ones were alike, the one feature shared by all was the frequent task switching.

Where does that leave us, UX researchers? Let’s start thinking about how we can make our sessions closer to people’s real experiences. Besides the standard background noise and other disruptions, we may need to integrate flow-interrupting activities such as watching short videos, reading a neutral tweet, math problems, unrelated product browsing in our sessions. If our participants can still confidently complete the task assigned (granted, over a longer period) then we can be more reassured that we indeed tested the design.

Something Tangible

We all want to make the world a better place, and my god, isn’t that needed more than ever? I need to think bigger and wider how to do that, but for now, I just made facial masks, and sent them off to friends so that they (and their loved ones) can be protected. Small, but doable and specific.

What can you ask on a form?

There is a science, or at least there is a lot of research on how to design forms – both in their appearance and in their content. Luke Wroblewski’s Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks, published in 2008, is a classic. Should you have less time, Nick Babich’s overview is a great summary. As a job seeker, I have been applying for UX jobs – that is, I am filling out application forms for tech companies that are at a stage of UX maturity that they realize the need for a UX researcher. I am not kidding myself that the application process is going to be fun, but the job itself makes me hopeful that it would not be painful, or so frustrating that I would abandon the job application process.

And yet. I am admitting that I have decided not to apply for certain jobs just because filling out the form was so painful. Forms that did not breathe weed out people with ADHD and/or dyslexia, a not-so-subtle form of discrimination. Again, others ask questions that are unnecessary from the perspective of employment. One of the golden rules of form design is to only ask essential questions. I guess job seekers are a captive audience, they do not have much of a choice to say that HR should mind their own business. An obvious example is the gender of the applicant. While it is possible there is a reason for this curiosity, I would like to know what that reason is. For one, I would understand the culture of the company better, for two, I would not see it as much of a one-sided conversation as it actually is, but unnecessarily so.

I have gotten used to the gender question. More woke companies offer more than two options, or allow for choosing a “I prefer not to answer”. But then again, if they are fine with some people not answering, why ask? And what does it say about me if I decline to answer? That I am progressive? Or a pain in the butt? Or I haven’t decided yet? Does that make me a more or less desirable candidate? While I am aware of the difference between gender and sex, for the majority of us, our chosen/assigned gender is visible and audible on the phone. Who are we kidding?

So, my so-far-unidentified rule with these questions has been that if a question can be asked face-to-face without feeling weird, it is OK on a form. but today I had to do a double-take when seeing this:

question asking applicants about their sexual orientation

I am proposing a guideline here: if you can ask that question from a stranger without feeling awkward, you are ok to use that question on a form. But if it feels you are crossing a line, don’t ask it By the way, these questions are from Twillio’s website, and I honestly expected a higher level of maturity from you.

Weird times

this is a difficult time for most of us, with tens of thousands of Americans unemployed, and more than 50,000 COVID deaths. I have seen a lot of drastic societal changes in my life, I have moved from Europe to the USA, but this is so much bigger. Not just the pandemic, but also seeing 30% of people supporting an incompetent human wreck …while the world is hurtling toward a catastrophic climate crisis. A lot to live with. Especially when responsible for nurturing your kids’ dreams.

I am one of those suddenly unemployed, and I have to admit, I am better off for it. Work takes a toll when you don’t see any meaning in it, but you are still required to make it pixel-perfect, for months on end. I felt stressed out and not growing. I understand this is a minuscule problem, but I have a similarly sized solution. Now that I am unemployed, and surrounded by my whole family at all times, I am happy to slow down, spend my days working with my hands (sewing, drawing, cooking, and gardening), reading, and up-skilling. The opportunities to learn are all at my fingertips, and my biggest challenge is to decide what I should do first. Who would have thought that SQL is so much fun? I am working for a nanodegree in Programming for Data Science in R at Udacity. I am enjoying it even though I am taking small bites of the course every day.

Attending the 2020 Information Architecture Conference – virtually. There are some great talks, and I appreciate the ability to watch them at my own pace, but …. it is just not as enlightening and nourishing as being a part of a real community as when you are interacting in person. More on the talks later.

Participating in another virtual event: the Hack the Gap hackathon. A week-long collaboration of coders and designers, via zoom, hangout, handoffs on Avocode, and Github. An interesting and somewhat eye-opening experience being the only UX person fighting for the user, with four programmers, who focused on making the code work. Hats off to my teammates who were able to do both the back- and frontend programming, while I was just “beautifying” the website:-) UX has a long way to go to evangelize!!! Did I change any minds? I really want to believe that.

UX Research is not a one-time thing

I have come across this, in my opinion, flawed diagram on ADOBE”s blog called A Comprehensive Guide to U

X Research.  It is a circle, and so the idea is that this is the flow of an iterative process, with research starting the flow of design, prototyping, building, testing an back to research. And I am fine with iterative processes – that is a cornerstone of all good designing (a verb, not a noun).

The diagram suggests a very expensive and inefficient way of product design – how many hours will it take to prototype and build something only to realize that it won’t work? Or won’t work the way you had hoped it would?

If building is a separate step from prototyping, then building means coding? What does it mean? And with the plethora of tools Adobe enables designers to use – one of them being XD that this article is supposed to promote, then why not use rapid prototyping and just test it, for god’s sake! Gather feedback from potential users! Gain insights as soon and as fast as you can!

Sales Funnel Serves Sales People, Not Users

I have experienced several digital projects this past year where the expressed business goal was to get users to get into the sales funnel as fast as possible. And that is problematic because users do not want to be “funneled”.

The easiest way to do that is to get them to fill out a form with their name, email address, and phone number on the website, as soon as the visitor arrives. Granted, there may be “token”contact form with name, email, phone number, etc information pages,  but it is transparent to most users that they this is not a fair deal, and are only willing to do so if they have already made up their mind to work with that company, and are not really looking for any information.  Basically, when the intent behind visiting a website is to hand over your business card.

Interviews I conducted with potential clients clearly show that most users visit a vendor’s website to learn more about the product, see how it works and to decide whether it fits into their budget.

I’d rather go to a different bank than give out my personal information on their website. Then they would just call me all the time and try to talk me into stuff

They do not want to expose themselves to an unwanted sales call. Unless the vendor first earns their trust and does something for the client first. 

That’s how business needs meet user needs.