Dr. Joy Robinson on User Experience Research


Ryan: Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. And I’m especially excited about today’s guest.

Joy: Hi, my name is Joy Robinson and I work at Google as a UX researcher for Chrome OS.

Ryan: I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Robinson for several years at UAH, before she returned to industry as a UX researcher. I invited her on the podcast to talk about that work, including how she understands users, and how she advocates for them in her role at Google. I hope you enjoy the interview,

Begin Interview

Ryan: Joy, I am really excited to have you on the podcast. We have worked together for years. Though we no longer work together, we’ve got a UX collection coming out, hopefully by the end of this year. And I am very excited to talk with you about your work. And a good place to start is just explaining kind of what your role is as a UX researcher at Google?

Joy: Well, I am working in the Chrome OS product line, which basically is the OS for Chromebooks. And I work in the areas of both apps and gaming on a Chromebook. So through my work as a researcher, I get to evaluate the new and upcoming features for the operating system. I get to promote users and their use cases for what they want to accomplish with the operating system. And I know a lot of people don’t think about the operating system as sort of being all that instrumental, but essentially good operating systems allow you to do the work that you want to do through apps. I also represent the user voice through research that I conduct or that I find. And I try to uncover what will resonate with users in terms of features and things that they might be interested in and need on a Chromebook.

Ryan: Awesome. So and I like your point, because a lot of UX is invisible, right? You’re talking about the Chrome OS, you know, and it’s like, well, people don’t think about the OS. But that means the UX is good, right? If people aren’t thinking about it in a way, right? So you kind of want it to be invisible.

Joy: Exactly.

Ryan: There’s a lot to talk about here. You talk about kind of representing the user. So let’s talk first, how do you actually engage with users? You said, finding out kind of their use cases, what features they want. What kinds of user engagement do you do?

Joy: Well, it just depends on the particular kind of research that I’m after. For example, I have a large diary study going. So I’ve got users engaged for a pretty long time, for like six months. I sent them Chromebooks and I say, “Hey, play with this thing, and tell me what you found,” you know. So it just depends. I also can do interviews or usability tests. So I can run the gambit of the kinds of things that I can do to engage and work with users.

Ryan: I want to hear more about the diary study. I remember you were doing something like that when you were at UAH. Why did you choose a diary study in particular to kind of understand users?

Joy: So that’s kind of a long story. But so Chrome OS has been percolating around on Chromebooks since about 2012, 2013. I wasn’t at Google, so I don’t know exact dates. And since then, there have been a number of studies that have all been ongoing for users and what they need in their operating system. And a lot of those studies have been encapsulated through interviews or surveys, you know, kind of traditional methods. And there have been some short diary studies. But as the operating system has grown, it’s become kind of apparent that we need to maybe figure out kind of the more nuances that users experience. So instead of asking the user, “Hey, you clicked on that thing. Why did you do that?” And then having to recall what the heck I was thinking when I did it, the diary studies gives me a chance to sort of say, “Hey, here’s the device, just play with it. And as you play with it, write stuff down, whatever that is. And then give me your perspective at the end of the week about what you learned what you did, blah blah blah blah blah.” I proposed that study to be able to sort of capture those sorts of nuances that happen as users go about their day and then they kind of forget to tell you at the interview, so those kinds of things is what this is supposed to capture.

Ryan: So you’re trying to catch a little more like real time use, as opposed to Yeah, you’re at the end of the week, if you’re like, “What did you do this week?” And then like “Nah, I don’t remember.” It’s like asking your kids what they did at school that day, right? For the diary study on the nuts and bolts, like, do they write stuff down with pen and paper? Like, how did they record their observations?

Joy: That’s a good question. I gave them Google Docs. And so they all sort of, you know, I’m sure some of them will probably transcribing your writing down. But as essentially I needed it to end up in the diary, the electronic diary. I also can give them missions, like, we’ve got a weekly mission schedule. So like, for example, I think it was last week, I had them install a specific app and then tell me what they experience from installing that specific app on their machine, and they can do it in their own time, and then diary about it and their electronic diary.

Ryan: Okay, great. And so they kind of get some guidance, but they kind of just sort of freeform. It’s a little bit sort of structured, unstructured research.

Joy: Yeah. So the missions give them a little structure. So stuff we might be interested in. Like, for example, I have a colleague who’s interested in onboarding. So what do users experience when they get their brand new laptop and have to set it up? So when we got started, she followed them along through their onboarding process, had them record videos and stuff like that, talk about it in their diary. And since they get to keep the laptop, at the end of the six months, you know, we’re encouraging them use it, like you want to use it, if you want to give it to your kids and your wife, or your husband or whatever your dog, do, whatever it is you would normally do with it. And just tell us how it worked out, you know, what were your impressions? What happened?

Ryan: So it’s a much more holistic approach to as opposed, like, do this task on this thing. It’s much more like, what do you do? What frustrations did you encounter, what did you like? Alright, so that’s kind of the research. And but then you also said, you know, you have to advocate for the users on the other side. So how would you go about then taking what you’ve learned about users and kind of ensuring to the best of your ability that, you know, the company incorporates those insights?

Joy: Well, I can tell you the different ways that I advocate for the users. Whether or not it gets incorporated is still sort of up in the air. I do my best. I can honestly weigh in with user insights at meetings and such. So we have a huge gaming, we have a huge gaming launch. Last year, our first hardware to support Chromebook gaming came out. And so, as I go to those meetings, and I’ve been doing research, you know, they say, “Hey, users gonna like this big red button sitting in the middle of the screen!” and I’m like “Maybe not so much.”

Ryan: And then you can say, we have this data that the users routinely said they didn’t like the big red button. I imagine that goes over the better than just sort of like they probably won’t like this.

Joy: Yeah. Yes, yes. Yes, it does. And I can also, if they have questions that I don’t have answers for from previous studies, or whatever, I can then go and try to run a study to uncover those answers. So one of the things that the Chromebook does, which I think it’s really neat, is it brings over your Android apps and games onto your Chromebook so you can play them. And so since Android is a, you know, mobile device with a small format, a lot of them come over and open up in a windowed format, so it’s not full screen. And so one of the questions that the designer and developers had was, “Well, you know, we could force the app to come over full screen. How do they want it?” And I was like, “Well, I find out, you know, so do they want to play their games in full screen? Do they want to play their games in windowed mode? Or do they want to change it back and forth, and that should be an option?” So I can go find answers. And if I can’t do a research study, then maybe I can just actually dig up studies everybody else has done, right. There’s always literature about external and internal that can be sourced and say, “Hey, you know, we’ve got so many people who chimed in on, this is what users do when they game on their Chromebook. And this is how we might want to proceed.

Ryan: So you have internal data from Google, but you might also use somebody else’s, some academic, right, who has done some research on this.

Joy: Yes. This amazing academic who wrote this amazing book. Yes, I can bring that in to.

Ryan: Well, that’s good news for academics.

Joy: It is. And we turn, we do a lot of sourcing out of academia when it comes to areas we haven’t studied, like, I know someone not too long ago, was asking about, I think it was two, three years ago with you, Ryan, we were talking about the various ways you could find help on a system, right? And so someone not long ago was saying, “Hey, what ways can I find, you know, educational nudges and help on a system?” And I was like, “I know there’s academic research around that.” You know, so, some things are really cool. We can, you know, bring in externally. And there’s some things are super specific. Like, we have a very large Google Search team, as you might imagine. And they’ve done a lot of studies on how users search and what they want. And so you know, we can tap into some of that research if it’s related as well.

Ryan: Here’s a question for you, because this comes up a lot in teaching and everything, is when you present this research, what kinds of like, genres and formats, because I assume you’re not writing an academic article for like the development team?

Joy: No.

Ryan: Right? How do they like to get their, how do they like to get the data and the results presented to them?

Joy: That’s another great question. I had this conversation with, I don’t know you remember Laura,

who was working for META and is now working at Home Depot. So she and I, we were on a call for something. And we both mentioned that we don’t write reports. No one wants to report any longer. And so what I typically do is, I’ll do a study, like I just got through with the interview. At the end of the week, when the interviews are done, I’ll send a preliminary report, I call a report, but it’s a basically a one pager that says these are the main themes. And then when the report is ready, it comes out as a slide deck. So people can flip through the slides. And interestingly enough, you then allow people to chime in and jump in with comments and questions, for what’s unclear? And then you can update the deck, and then the deck goes and lives in a repository.

Ryan: Oh, that’s cool. So you’re, when you’re giving the presentation, this slide deck is still kind of a living document.

Joy: It’s a living document.

Ryan: Right? If there’s like questions or whatever, I wanted to know this, then you can kind of know directly from your audience, okay, they needed this information. I’ll update it, and then it goes, and houses somewhere. And then that’s how you can go and find when you mentioned, like these old studies, you can go pull the slides or the one pager or whatever, and be like, okay, they found this.

Joy: Absolutely, yeah. At some point, I do present it usually directly to the teams who were interested in it. And then to a broader audience. We have all kinds of mechanisms to sort of share UX work, regular workshops, and design-a-thons and things like that. So I can attend one of those and then ask to be on the docket and talk for 10 minutes about whatever I found.

Ryan: Very cool. Very cool. All right. So UX, you know, it’s a big growing discipline. It’s a big growing field. What are the trends that you kind of see in the next five years? I guess, what, what should we be looking out for on the horizon?

Joy: So I was thinking about that not too long ago, especially as AI has come up. So I think those large language models are going to highly influence UX at some point, as well as the new configurations that are sort of emerging in terms of how UX professionals are grouped into teams. So the opportunity to scale, I think, is going to be sort of a trend in UX, the large language modules or the ChatGPTs, as well as the new tech that’s coming out. So if I talk about scaling first, then, you know, the companies are figuring out ways to have full UX teams. Like my team, I have a full team of only researchers. And then we interface with the designers and engineers and the other people around us. So typically, what companies do in that regard, they’ll put a UX VP that will create these structures, they call them design operations, or research ops, or should probably just be called UX ops. And then helps you to sort of scale collaborate, create tools, everybody use, etc. So I think that’s going to be a growing trend. It kind of started maybe, three, four or five years back. And I think that’s, that’s going to continue to, to move forward.

And obviously, new tech is another one. As biometrics and all those other kind of cool, pupil tracker, skin conductivity, all that stuff gets cheaper and sort of moves out of the university purview and sort of more into commercialization like they’re starting to do, you will have a better opportunity to really hone in on that “You don’t have to tell me what you did. I can watch your video. If you walk into the grocery store, or running on your treadmill, you know, whatever it is.

Ryan: And you get different types of feedback that way, because it’s not just, you know, users reporting how they feel is very helpful. But people don’t always know how they feel.

Joy: Exactly. Exactly. Self reporting is flawed. Yes, yes.

Ryan: Yeah. So correlating like they said, they were happy, but their heart rate spiked. So what does that mean kind of thing?

Joy: Exactly, exactly. So I think those are two big trends that are coming, and then how AI will be used to help us, I think, move faster, right. So to be more efficient, analyze our data, be more efficient, find themes and stuff. Like my diary study, for example, is running six months. And there’s 35 people. So I can imagine one day, not today, unfortunately, being able to have it, you know, pop out the main themes that arise from all that the corpus of data that you have.

Ryan: Right, because right now are you like you hand coding the diary data?

Joy: Oh, my God, yes. I have to hand code the diary study.

Ryan: That is that is a lot of work. Man. You thought you were done with that when you went to corporate! And here you are!

Joy: I know, right?! I did have a colleague who was working for me, but unfortunately, he got impacted by the layoffs. So now it’s just me going to be doing the coding for all the all the dire studies.

Ryan: That is a lot of work.

Joy: It is. It’ll be exciting, though.

Ryan: Yeah, you’ll find some interesting things. Well, this has been great. You sound largely hopeful about like the future and trajectory of UX.

Joy: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I think one more thing I can mention is that education kind of comes on for academia and everything and we start to actually produce more UX undergraduate degrees. You know, I think that’ll also be beneficial to enter the industry. Because as a sort of newer industry, just like with tech writing being relatively newer, you don’t have a lot of the systems in place to guide the people who come into industry, like when new standards and things like that that, say human factors already has, right? So I think that as we start to produce, more undergrads will start to then put more things in place that will make it a lot easier for people to work in these fields.

Ryan: Right, better preparation, because that right now it does seem like UX people are coming from psychology, tech writing, HCI.

Joy: Yes, yes. And of course, what happens is they bring over their own standards, right? So the psychology people come with their own biases from their own fields and how they were trained. And then tech writers come with their own biases. And so what we need is sort of a way of sort of standardized kind of the things that we do based on the responses that we need and things that we need. And as we sort of have people who are trained with similar kinds of perspectives that will help to grow those guidelines.

Ryan: And we’ve talked about this before, you know, there is the Journal of Usability Studies and whatnot, but there’s not like a UX journal, right? All this stuff kind of gets housed in its different places. And so, you know, it’s an interdisciplinary field, which is great, but it’s a multidisciplinary field where the people don’t always talk to each other, so.

Joy: Exactly, exactly. So I think that as academia becomes more evolved in UX that will, that will start to turn around.

Ryan: Well, thank you, Joy. I really enjoyed talking with you about your work and getting to catch up.

Joy: Yeah, let me know if there’s anything else we can talk about. It’s all good.

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Episode 4