Day# 142: Interview with a UX Researcher, Srikant (Cheenu) Chari

Day# 142: Interview with a UX Researcher, Srikant (Cheenu) Chari

Hi there lovely Uxers! Today I have connected with Srikant Cheenu Chari, he was very kind to answer some questions on his experiences and thoughts in UX research and how he got into the industry. Enjoy!


What did you study and how did you get into the UX research field?

I studied Cognitive Science during my undergrad and I did my Masters in Human Computer Interaction.  

Cognitive Science in a nutshell is the study of brains, minds, and computers and during my undergrad years I was really fascinated by the brain and was particularly interested in how working memory, decision making, and reasoning worked. My original plan was to go towards an academic route, but after 2 ½ years of being part of a lab, I started to feel burned out and was trying to figure out what else I could do outside of academia.  

I actually discovered UX during my second semester of senior year through my university’s career fair when a recruiter saw my resume and remarked “hey you are a Cognitive Science major! You should look into User Experience!” And at that time I had a faint idea of what UX was and use to think it was glorified graphic design and thought, “why the hell do they need people from Psychology and Cognitive Science?” So I did some research on the field and for the first time, I had that rush of excitement seeing how much psychology is involved in making design decisions.

I was fortunate enough to get my first position as a UX Architect Intern for a Digital Marketing company in Dallas where I got my hands dirty building wireframes and sitemaps, and from there my curiosity grew. So I enrolled in the HCI concentration of my Masters program. After working part time for a startup and doing some Design Research Consulting gigs, I finally landed a UX Research role at BMC Software in Austin.

 


Where are you located and what is the UX scene like there?

I am currently based in Austin, TX. Austin is well known for its tech scene in Texas and we have a growing UX scene as well. Loads of companies like IBM, HomeAway, Indeed, Charles Schwab, etc. are growing their UX teams. We also have the Austin UXPA Chapter, Austin IxDA Chapter, Action Design ATX, and OpenIDEO Austin Chapter to name a few that keep the community connected.

 


What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day as a UX Researcher varies. Some days, I create UX Research plans for upcoming studies. Then there are days when I actually conduct the studies whether it be usability tests, contextual inquiries, or user interviews. Then there are days where I synthesize the raw qualitative data through affinity diagramming and find valuable insights and to illustrate them I create personas and experience maps and present them to the designers and product managers.

 


What is something that you always keep in mind when conducting research?

There are two broad sides to UX Research: there’s exploratory research and then there’s evaluative research.

When it comes to exploratory research, it is all about uncovering the “unknown unknowns” – which involves discovering problems with the current state of how people do things. So what I keep in mind with exploratory research – is as follows:

 

  • What are the people trying to do?
  • How do they currently do things the way they do?
  • Why do they do the things that they do?

 

These broad questions helps me set an objective of how I should explore this nebulous problem space such that it is open-ended enough to discover areas I haven’t thought about, but focused enough to get something out of it.

Evaluative Research on the other hand involves usability testing. With this sort of research, you have a prototype or an actual product and your goal is to test it out with a small sample of users to see whether it makes sense for the user. Some things I keep in mind when conducting usability studies is as follows:

  • Does the user understand what to do on screen?
  • Does how the user interact with the prototype feel natural to them?
  • Does the user feel that the prototype of the product is useful?

 

So depending on the nature of the problem, I really have to keep in mind which route to go towards and structure research plans accordingly.

 


How would one transition from UX design to a fully research position?

Generally most people who are UX Researchers have a background in either Human Computer Interaction, Psychology, Cognitive Science, Anthropology, and other areas in the Social Sciences.

 

With that being said, if you are a UX Designer who is wanting to make the transition into UX Research, somethings I highly recommend doing is as follows:

  • Understand Human Psychology Of Design – This is very important as you are trying to inform other designers of the design direction to go towards based on user behavior. I recommend checking out Susan Weinschenk’s 100 Things Designers Need To Know About People as well as studying Usability Heuristics from Nielsen Norman Group’s website.
  • Practice Being An Observer – A big part of UX Research is being observant of human behavior, whether it be how people interact with one another or the tools they use. Learn how to observe natural settings (like an office space, hospital, etc.) and do so without interjecting with the environment with potential solutions. Some books I highly recommend checking out when it comes to learning how to conduct ethnographic style research are as follows: Cognition In The Wild by Edwin Hutchins and Gang Leader For A Day by Sudhir Venkatesh.
  • Practice Conducting Interviews With People – Then there’s User Interviews. The key to good interviews is that it is more conversational in nature and allows you to get answers you wouldn’t normally have thought about before. Some great books I recommend checking out when it comes to conducting user interviews are as follows: Just Enough Research by Erika Hall and Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal
  • Practice Conducting Usability Tests – It is important for designers to get into the research mindset when it comes to conducting usability tests. You need to approach designs with curiosity and open-mindedness and observe your participants using your prototypes without biasing them or getting too attached to a design. Books I recommend checking out are Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think and Rocket Surgery Made Easy.
  • Be Able To Analyze And Synthesis Your Research – Finally, you need to be able to take your raw qualitative and/or quantitative findings and be able to make sense of it all so that you can tell the story to your designers and product managers. I always do affinity diagramming because of how flexible it is to rearrange and cluster raw data to find common patterns and insights. You also have to be able to figure which deliverables actually convey the findings best, whether it be journey maps, personas, etc.

 


What do you think Uxers are not getting right when working on projects, and in turn what do you think they are achieving well in their various roles? (It is a very generalized question but you can answer with what you have observed in the industry so far)

So there are many things I have noticed about the UX field. For startups and companies that are starting to get into UX (especially the one’s that tend to be either engineering driven or co-opted by business), they tend to have this notion that they understand who the users are and just engineer a product and think that all the designer’s need to do is make the product pretty and just ship it. They don’t realize that the designer’s job is more than making things pretty, but understanding what the user is trying to accomplish and making design decisions based on evidence from the user.

The other thing I have noticed especially from newer designers is that they think design is all about making things cool and flashy for the sake of it. What tends to happen with this mindset is that they get so attached to their designs, that when people find flaws in them they get defensive. This is especially true if they aren’t use to a design culture that involves constantly making iterations and testing them out.

With that being said, I am also optimistic as some companies out there are gradually getting better at implementing design processes and also UX Research. Companies like Intuit, Capital One, IBM Design, Airbnb, etc. are doing their best to really unleash the true value of UX on their products and customer experiences.

 


What are some common questions you would get asked in a UX Research position interview?

Common questions asked in a UX Research job interview are along the lines of the following:

  • Tell me about your past experience?
  • What were you trying to accomplish with research?
  • How did you go about conducting the research?
  • Why did you use a particular research method?
  • How did the research impact design decisions?
  • Were there moments when research didn’t pan out the way you expected?
  • How did you adjust to changes?
  • How did you work with other team members?

 

Then there are exercises they give where they either give a broad problem or more specific problem and they want to see how you would go about planning the research as well as how you articulate the plan.

 


What software and tools can you advise a UX researcher to become familiar with to make their job easier or to carry out their necessary tasks?

UX Research is first and foremost about understanding the research methodologies. So I recommend checking out Nielsen Norman Group’s website to get an overview of all the research methods.

As far as software tools go, here’s how I would break it down:

  • Creating Research Plans – Either Microsoft Word or Google Docs
  • Conducting Observational Studies – Having a camera to take photos and/or video recorder to record videos. Also make sure you get permission from the people you are observing to.
  • Conducting Interviews – If you are conducting interviews in person, make sure to have an audio recorder. If you are conducting the interview via video conferencing, make sure to use either Zoom, Skype/WebEx, or Google Hangouts and make sure to record the conversations. Always ask for permission of course.
  • Conducting Unmoderated Usability Tests – For unmoderated usability tests, I would recommend checking out usertesting.com or Usabilla among many other tools to record and analyze users interacting with a website in an unmoderated environment.
  • Capturing And Annotating Images – For capturing images from video recordings of sessions, I recommend using either Camtasia and/or Snagit to be able not capture screenshots but also annotate them as well (very handy when spotting usability issues).
  • Note Taking And Synthesis Work – When conducting user interviews and usability test sessions, it is always good to make notes from the video recordings. So using spreadsheet software like Microsoft Excel or Smartsheets really comes in handy.
  • Conducting Surveys – For conducting surveys I recommend using either SurveyMonkey, Qualtrics, or Typeform.
  • Analyzing Qualitative Data – I recommend doing affinity diagramming using good ol’ sticky notes and sharpies. However, there are digital collaboration tools like Realtime Board that have that feature.
  • Analyzing Quantitative Data – Depending on the nature of the quantitative data some knowledge of R, SAS, and/or SPSS wouldn’t hurt. In addition, having an understanding of Google Analytics wouldn’t hurt either.
  • Creating Research Report Deliverables – Generally need to know how to use PowerPoint/Keynote. It is best to create Experience Maps and Personas inside said tools. With that said, having some skills in Photoshop and Illustrator wouldn’t hurt either.

 


Thanks so much Cheenu! You shared such valuable information in this interview and I think it will really help other Uxers out there wanting to go into more of a research based role. Happy researching until next time Uxers

Bye for now

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