Meet Qualcomm’s Principal UX Researcher, Bennett King

BeFunky_Bio2.jpgAs a UX enthusiast, I use my interviews with influential UXers to learn about trending topics occurring today and gain inspiration. Especially with today’s focus on mobile, I thought it fitting to reach out to the user experience researcher at Qualcomm, which focuses on wireless technology and mobile innovation.

After doing some research, I connected with Bennett King, in order to discuss crucial user experience topics. Intrigued with his answers, I found it rewarding to share the interview with you! Enjoy!

Where do you get UX inspiration?

I get much of my inspiration from our UX community at large. I feel like I have a bit of a commensal relationship with the UX community – I am definitely taking more than giving. Right now, I am really enjoying the sharing and learning going on in our local San Diego UX community and I also spend a good amount of time interacting, either online or at conferences, with the national and international community. Hearing other professionals’ optimism and passions reinvigorates my own.

I also like to get inspiration from topics or discussions that make my brain hurt. I have a digital crush on Amber Case; she is incredibly bright and entertaining, and I find her presentations and book on Cyborg Anthropology awesomely mind blowing. Another of my recent favorites is Branko Lukic’s NONOBJECT book and design philosophy. A friend of mine posted a picture of me listening to him speak last year and I literally had my mouth wide open. I felt like I could barely comprehend what I was hearing but as it sunk in and I went back over my notes, it really made me look at products a little differently.

On the design side I get a lot of inspiration from street art. Turning every day, mundane objects or buildings into emotional experiences is ridiculously cool. I like how street art can interrupt a person’s daily routine and make them take a moment to think differently.  The punk inside me also likes the fact that they are unsanctioned art bombs.

How do you recognize a great UX designer?

A great UX designer to me shows that they can think and design beyond themselves. They are not egoless but should understand that there may always be a better possibility or solution. They should be able to defend their designs but should also be able to trash them at the drop of a hat and start over from scratch if the need arises. And it doesn’t hurt if they have at least a working knowledge of every piece of the user-centered design puzzle.

The best UX designers I have known have an internal drive and ambition to always be learning. The IA who is messing around with Arduino boards or the researcher who is taking an Illustrator class – to me this thirst for knowledge is the sign of a great UX designer. It is also completely necessary since we are moving to a mobile design world where our processes, knowledge and skills will have to grow and change exponentially faster.

I got all the way through that without once saying “empathy”…crap…I said it.

What do you think are the 3 most common misconceptions about user experience research?

“User research takes too long (substitute costs too much)” is number one with a bullet. This is a load of horseshit. There are many forms of small-scale or even guerrilla research techniques out there that are approachable for any schedule or budget. A little research and information up front can save design iterations (and money) later on.

“I already know what the user wants (substitute what the product should be)”. I still hear this quite a bit from groups I work with. I stopped hearing this on my own team as soon as I started taking team members in the field to observe our research. Put anyone who says this in the end-user’s shoes and I guarantee they will learn something new.

“User research is just usability testing”. I am blown away that I am still hearing this, even within our own community. I’m a simpleton so I just break it down into front-end and back-end research. Front-end research is field research and user feedback that helps to define a product, and back-end research is mainly usability analytics that helps to refine a product. I know this is not entirely correct but it is an easy way for me to explain it to people.

Jeff Gothelf calls copywriting “The Secret Weapon of UX”. Do you agree and to what extent?

I can understand where Jeff is coming from; copywriting can be a powerful weapon for persuading, influencing and directing users. Since I tend to work on the product side rather than the content side, would it surprise you if I called user research the “Secret Weapon of UX” (I might be biased)? Until you understand user needs and have the insight to make something desirable, even the best copy in the world won’t sell your product.

How can management best assess how much time and budget should be available for UX?

For my group there isn’t magic number; the time and budget change on almost a project-by-project basis. Some projects are full prototypes and involve the UX team from start to finish while others may be based on improving chip performance and require an advisory role only. That being said, here are some recommendations based on what we’ve learned.

Spend hours and hours understanding and identifying the problem(s) to be solved. Use every collaboration, brainstorming, design or planning tool at your disposal to get management communicating and on the same page, or as close to it as possible, about the project. Make sure it is communicated and available to the team. Get their input and let their voices be heard (don’t worry; you can conveniently forget some input). Then start your UX planning.

Have a solid UX process or set of processes that works for you and your team will give you a good foundation for planning. Learn to adapt them to different projects but stick to your guns. If a stakeholder says they want wireframes but not research, don’t change the process. Offer to scale back the research and maybe do fewer comps but stick to the process that you know will get results.

What are some of the things that designers can read or study to apply the principles of psychology to their work?

Most answers to this question would and should include reading Don Norman’s Emotional Design but let’s see if we can’t add a few more to the list. My newest favorite is Invisible Gorilla. For people and companies that design products by intuition or instinct, this is an important read that may make you think twice. How We Decide is an easy read for those interested in the human decision making process. Also, don’t hesitate to bring traditional psychology books into your work. I bought a couple of Art Therapy books a while back that provided unique insight into sketching techniques we use for user research.

For anyone in UX, it doesn’t hurt to have a good desk reference on Cognitive Psychology; I have Ashcraft’s Fundamentals of Cognition on my desk but there are several good, and newer, options out there. 

Also, If you want to study something, study people. Next time you start a project just go out and do some quick anonymous observation of people around your subject matter. It turns out we are highly illogical, prone to mistakes, and often don’t do what others think we should.

What’s your first course of action when you begin the process of evaluating a product’s user experience?

My first course of action is usually well before there is a product to evaluate, but, starting at the product (or for us a prototype), we usually have an internal review which is something like a heuristic evaluation to make sure we met the intended user and design requirements, and the overall project goals. Since, as part of our team process, we have to prove the viability of a project, we might run a Desirability Study to hedge our bet. We might also observe or test the user for discoverability, usability, and performance. On our really fun days, working with a great group of engineers allows us to build unique, one-off, user testing platforms that let us delve into out-there research areas like psychophysics.

What are your top 2 recommendations for making the first visit to an online service a success?

I am probably the wrong person to answer this question since I have been away from the online UX world for nearly a decade and am always somewhere in the middle for adoption, but I’ll just steal my favorite two of Rams’ design principles and we’ll act like I know what I am talking about. Make the online service useful and make it unobtrusive. 

Bennett King is a Principal User Experience Researcher at Qualcomm Research where he shares his time between dark, windowless labs and the wilds of field research.