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The future of UX research: Measure the unquantifiable

Applications capture more information than ever about their users, from heart rate to tone of voice. Prepare for a connected software future with qualitative UX measurements.

Winning the hearts and minds of software customers could come from measuring their hearts and minds. There is an exciting array of advanced UX measurement techniques on the horizon, as enterprises invest in and experiment with physiological measurements and emotional analytics.

In the future of UX research, enterprises will make use of advanced data to open new business and app-dev possibilities. Organizations need new workflows to fully adopt qualitative UX measurement techniques, such as having UX pros spend more time with QA and development teams to drive software direction. However, companies must also address privacy and ethical concerns as part of this process to settle growing unrest about big tech.

Emotional analytics

Physiological data will help UX testers make sense of a user's feelings while engaged with software, with the aid of emotional analytics tools, said Camilo Mejías, a UI/UX designer at Altimetrik, a digital transformation consultancy.

Mejías cites Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, by Don Norman, which emphasizes that it's no longer enough to simply provide a usable product. The future of UX is emotionally appealing experiences rather than simply functional ones. Frameworks like Google's HEART -- Happiness, Engagement, Adoption, Retention and Task Success -- attempt to capture how users feel when they complete tasks or activities in a product.

UX testers have explored ways to gain insight into customer experience in the affective computing field, but a lack of tools makes these assessments of a technology's human interactivity challenging.

"We knew what we needed to measure to build better products, but expensive equipment that was also too invasive to use in a user-testing session hindered our ability to get accurate data on user's emotions," Mejías said.

Smartwatches and wearable activity trackers accurately measure a user's heart rate, and phones offer advanced facial recognition features that capture subtle expressions. These consumer technologies provide UX testers with valuable insights into how users feel. Biometric and neurometric devices gather data on biological information such as eye movement, brain activity, skin response and facial response. These tools will likely become an essential component of future UX research.

"The speed at which these technologies are evolving to become part of our lives make this moment a great time to perform UX research," Mejías said.

Qualitative UX research

As tools provide many kinds of user feedback to IT with greater ease and speed, expect automated UX tools to be significant players in software development. Automated UX tools generally answer what questions effectively, but not why questions, said Tony Fernandes, founder and CEO of UEGroup, a UX design consultancy.

"Nobody understands humans better than other humans," Fernandes said. "I don't see the automation removing UX professionals from the equation, but rather making their job easier to do."

The bulk of UX testing automation focuses on quantitative assessment. Expect to see more work on smart tools to help automate qualitative research techniques and measurements, said Cléa Lautrey, a UX researcher. She has already seen improvements in her UX testing program with tools like EnjoyHQ, a UX research repository, which helps her team make sense of complex qualitative findings.

The UX industry has a long way to go to overcome commonplace research methodologies that rely heavily on subjective participant feedback, Lautrey believes. Better UX measurement tools might focus on actions -- biometric feedback -- over descriptive words, to yield more objective results. Fernandes anticipates technologies that combine emotional and performance ratings into a composite score. With this score, developers can assess the likelihood that a feature will succeed with users, augmenting the work of UX professionals.

Voice search

The rise of voice-based platforms like Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa and Google Voice makes it easier for developers to surface applications on smart devices. Thus, UX testing tools should track voice search, and UX designers should optimize for it, said Calloway Cook, president of Illuminate Labs, an herbal supplement marketplace.

Voice search offers a significantly different search experience than typing, on mobile or desktop. Tools will enable more website owners to serve different content to voice searchers, similar to the Google Knowledge Graph, which presents information to Google searchers in more than one format.

Ethical testing

Many experts caution that UX improvements in emotional and biological tracking could lead to privacy concerns, and addictive app experiences.

With customer satisfaction at the heart of the Agile Manifesto, it is imperative to incorporate UX processes at every stage -- from prototyping to iteration, to testing.
Cléa LautreyUX researcher

"Moving toward cutting-edge measurement techniques to ascertain users' emotional or psychological responses during fielded engagement will first require figuring out how to balance these measurements with end users' privacy," said Karen Donoghue, principal interaction architect at HumanLogic, a product and user experience consultancy.

These regulatory and ethical concerns will likely grow with real-time UX data capture, ubiquitous devices and distributed analytics. UX teams should work with digital protection officers and other experts to address these concerns as part of the testing process, said Aaron Fazulak, director of design education at Flatiron School, which offers courses on UI and UX design. "The most important goal is to improve the human experience, not to make a product more addictive."

Utility function

Historically, UX measurement was based on abstract academic concepts. In the future, researchers will measure UX in terms of specific business outcomes, said Antony Edwards, COO of Eggplant, a software test automation platform. To do so, they should reverse engineer the utility function, meaning the level of desire a customer has for a particular product or brand.

Edwards predicts testing tools will integrate more physical measurements pertaining to the utility function through 2020. There are many physical measurements that researchers can derive from the various forms of biological and other input described earlier. He also expects to see even more value in analytics behaviors based on customer journeys, and sentiment analysis of user text input.

All this qualitative UX research requires testers to move from scripted actions to live user behavior. Once QA professionals make this shift, it's simple to add new types of information as additional data feeds.

UX in DevOps workflows

Technologies such as emotional analytics, physiological measurements and brainwave readings might be far off for the applications you develop and test. However, enterprises should plan now to ensure a consistent, centrally defined approach to UX.

"Using common tools, vocabulary, metrics and processes for how problems are identified and hypotheses are developed is a great way to future-proof UX measurement and ensure these efforts can be replicated across the enterprise," said Steve Roberts, managing director of professional services company Accenture's Industry X.0 practice.

UX in DevOps
How to incorporate UX into DevOps.

For many enterprises, UX testing no longer occurs at the end of the software development lifecycle. UX testers should apply these qualitative physiological measurement technologies to connected software within secure end-to-end product development cycles and architectures. UX professionals must fit this work into a continuous development and delivery cadence at Agile and DevOps organizations -- it will lead to better software releases and features.

"With customer satisfaction at the heart of the Agile Manifesto, it is imperative to incorporate UX processes at every stage -- from prototyping to iteration, to testing," Lautrey said. Hash out where the UX testing must occur in the product design process. When everyone understands this workflow, organizations can avoid incorrect assumptions that cause reworks due to poor UX. Once UX fits into a DevOps workflow, data collection techniques to measure UX should blend in seamlessly.

With adequate planning, DevOps teams set and manage UX expectations. The various UX-related processes take different amounts of time, complicating schedules. It's a big, but necessary, undertaking to get UX teams to work with developers, testers and operations.

"Implementing UX software testing in Agile and DevOps teams is always seen as a challenge, regardless if this is through new techniques or old and proven ones," Mejías said. But, once the organization experiences the real value of the UX research, the concern surrounding the time investment disappears completely, he said.

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