(De)framing Design: Why and how to support exploratory user research within Agile product development

Even in a mature, user-focused organization, when talking to “users”, we frame the conversation in terms of what we are interested in hearing about, whether a specific product, a particular workflow, or a general problem space. We simplify what we hear into trends and data points, which –while useful– serves to dehumanize the people we talk to into abstract representations of larger populations. This is a practical and efficient way to get the data needed to move a project forward, but might there be pragmatic value in understanding our users at an individual, human level, outside the artificial boundaries of our products and services? How might we scale an effort for continual exploratory data collection without disrupting project team velocity?

With this question in mind, University of Washington’s Academic Experience Design & Delivery (AXDD) UX team started the Student Experience Interview Project in late-2017, using oral history techniques to have open and ongoing conversations with UW students about their lives. In our 45+ conversations with students so far, we are finding that the stories serve as a great compliment to our more conventional methods, providing a richer, more nuanced understanding of the problems that we are working on and surprising us with unexpected avenues of inquiry and, possibly, opportunity.

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