Dennis Cheatham on People-Driven Design Research


I recently had the delightful opportunity to chat with Dennis Cheatham, a People-Driven Design Researcher and an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Miami University in Oxford, OH, about his current projects and his upcoming presentation at the HOW Interactive Design Conference in San Francisco. (Register by Aug. 20th and save $200.)

The interview below gives a glimpse into his HIDC discussion, “Research Your Way Into Users’ Hearts,” his thoughts on the design research process and his current projects. Read on for his insightful revelations on the research design process and glean tips from both his professional and academic experience.

dc_2012aQ+A with the People Driven Design Researcher, Dennis Cheatham:

Have you’ve been you to HIDC conference before?

No, I haven’t. I’m very excited to be a part of this one.

What do you look forward to the most at HIDC?

Well, after looking through the docket of different speakers that’s going to be there, so many talks are about human behavior and connecting, the pre-design, not specifically the nuts and bolts. But about how do we engage users and engage people in meaningful ways. A bunch of the talks are about that. There’s one talk about designing for behavioral change, which I think will be fascinating. So many presentations are about those deep connections that inform strategies and inform approaches to make what we design relevant and desirable that too often gets passed over. It’s easy to get into the nuts and bolts of interaction design, but you got to slow down and back up to that first part of why are you doing this and who are the people that you are doing this for.

Can you tell me what you expect people to walk away from your talk, “Research Your Way into Users’ Hearts?”

As far as takeaways, engaging with users and engaging with people who use interactive design products can be a bit of a transparent guess work. I’ve been a professional for a very long time before I started my academic career. And there’s always that question of “ok, great, I’m going to make this cool thing but how do I know it’s going to be received well? And how can I find out what people really want?” And it’s actually easier than one would think. I know many attendees may be in-house designers or they may work for agencies. On either side of it, there are some great techniques and some great way to be able to start to discover what matters to these people, what they get excited about, and that can be as much as what features to build into an interactive component or what colors, what imagery or what channels to tap into to augment that interactive component. One takeaway is where attendees will have some very quick skills and some tools to be able to use to start to discover what matters to those users and what delight those users.

What essential advice do you give your students about UX Design and design research?

“Don’t assume. It’s so easy to assume ‘everybody likes this’ or ‘everybody uses an iPhone.’ Don’t assume. Go find out.”

I teach a course with a marketing professor and we were doing a project with students. The task was for them to find out what mobile apps mattered to millennials, to users who are college students. And a lot of students jumped in with – “of course, they’ll love this and they like Spotify” and they listed off several different apps. The key: don’t assume. A suggestion was to go look at what they actually use.

One team did it so eloquently. They just started walking up to a bunch of college students and said “hey, would you show us the home screen on your phone? Just take a picture of it or let us look at it and let us see.” Because on the home screen are the apps we most value and the ones we want at our fingertips. So they did a survey of right around a hundred students and mapped out what all those home screen apps were. They started to discover – “wait a second, there’s some on here that we did not quite expect.” And that was a wonderful discovery for them and also fun for us as educators to be able to watch them discover that they were assuming one thing and yet discovered really some great findings by just going out and asking people.

From your experience, can you provide an example how design research has positively impacted the UX Design Experience?

I was working on a design research project and we were looking at connecting with users in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who were of a lower economic status. And we were specifically looking at the issue of parenting. We were trying to connect with users to get a message out to them in a way where they might have tools at their fingertips for improving their parenting and caring for their children. Our research led us to find that users in Dallas/Fort-Worth in the lower socio-economic status all had cell phones. They had more cellphones than they did have computers. It allowed us to focus building a website specifically with mobile usage in mind. So we used responsive design significantly. We were sticking to that user experience to specifically target the small screen and made our decisions as far as color and typefaces and interaction to make sure that it worked on mobile first. The research that we did was really helpful because it targeted a very specific type of solution, not to say that the full website wasn’t great and didn’t work well, but it allowed us to look at the platform far more carefully and far more closely. It also meant because of a gross majority of this population were not English native speakers, we made sure that the site was accessible across languages. Our research really informed about user experience, the features we put in, and the visuals and textual decisions.

What are your current projects? Are you still working on barriers preventing people from recording their end of life decisions? If so, what are you doing with that project and what are your revelations?

I started working with this last December. It’s funny talking with other researchers because they’ve been working on it for a while.

There’s one thing that has been unanimous. “So, you are going to be working on this the rest of your life, aren’t you?” and I’m like “Yep, pretty much!” 

One thing that is exciting about it is it’s applying these methods that I’ll be talking about at the HOW Interactive Design Conference – testing them out and trying new methods and new approaches in an inhospitable environment. Specifically, we’re talking about people thinking about their own deaths. Thinking about what matters to them when they reach a state where they cannot speak for themselves, which is a scary place to be. It’s a very compromising position and it’s not fun to think about. Americans don’t like delegating these decisions. Roughly 30 percent right now in America are actually recording notes. So testing out these methods to see how effective they might be could inform practice, but then will also help these people.

Currently, the research is still in its infancy because we’re using these approaches. How do we get to know users? How do we get to know people? I call this people driven design. I use users because that’s a user experience term, but getting to know people and finding out from them. What does this stuff matter to you when specifying your end of life decisions? What are the barriers? And the questions we have are: What would that service look like that these people might engage with? Might be more likely to make decisions? We don’t know.

I’m curious to find, perhaps, if somebody’s did not resuscitate agreement is also done at the same time when they’re sharing what song you want played at a funeral or you want someone to have an object that was of great value to them, to make sure a loved one had this or maybe then they have a recorded video that was shared.

We’re curious to find out if these people, and we are looking at underserved populations, would be more likely to make decisions. In other words, it’s a heart issue, not just a nuts and bolts issue, a “here’s what I want happened to me.: It’s a “here’s what I want people to feel around me when I get to this place.” It’s an emotional decision as much as it is a physiological decision.

“The research is exciting because it does bring in the heart issues.”

It also brings in real, physical issues that doctors, nurses and other medical professionals have to deal with. And it’s a very compromising position for them. A compromising situation when medical professionals don’t have these issues clear for them.

The research is systemic. There are so many moving parts: emotional, physiological, policy issues, and there’s certainly medical issues. There are people who are not served, so using design to be able to direct those people who don’t have access to legal representation. They need to address those issues to those underserved and also test out these methods.

What do designers struggle with the most when it comes to the research process?

From my own graphic design training and from my own graphic design practice, a big struggle has been where to start and how to gather data, how to gather evidence. We’re really good at going out into the field and maybe going to our client’s job site as if it’s a construction company. We’re really good at looking at some past branding and getting a feel for their last few interactive components, and connecting the dots.

It’s a challenge for designers to go out in the field or to connect with users and find out what matters to them. I was not terribly equipped in my undergrad training nor my professional practice on observing clients, speaking with clients, speaking with users, recording data and knowing how to record the data – and that could be as easy as quotes – to gather those words and to know how to read through those and look for patterns.

For example, talking with several users or listening in on client interactions and recording those and start to look over the findings and go “you know what, that one word kept coming up over and over again” or “this idea kept coming up over and over again. I think there’s something there.” I think there’s a gap. We aren’t always trained in those social sciences methods of looking through – what did we really find there and what were the trends and patterns. I think the beauty of that is that’s where we find those hidden things that are important, those topics or areas of interests that people don’t always write notes and say. And these methods aren’t talked in graphic design and interaction design curriculum as much as they would be in social science.

I think what’s exciting about being in a field of interaction design or experience design is we gather the information. We got to learn how to do that. We find the patterns, hidden meanings and then we actually make something and test it out, throw it out there, and see how it goes. If we can fill in those gaps of how to find that information, it’ll make us stronger designers.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

What are you looking forward to the most in San Francisco outside of the conference? Anything touristy you would like to do?

I was in San Francisco in July just for one day with my wife. We discovered a sushi restaurant that I can’t wait to go back to. I love San Francisco. The vibe is awesome. The energy is great. It’s a wonderful city. But for me, I’m excited about sushi. It’s funny. It’s as simple as that.

It will be great to be in that atmosphere again and also being with other creatives. Being with other interaction designers and learning from them.

Learn more from Dennis Cheatham at HIDC San Francisco. Register by midnight on August 20 to save!