Our Friend, the User Researcher: an Interview with Bill Albert

September 16th, 2010
Published on
September 16th, 2010

Like most user experience professionals, William “Bill” Albert is a busy guy. Unlike most professionals, however, Bill has nearly a decade of experience in the field. Today, he directs the Design and Usability Center at Bentley University, an organization offering UX consulting services to clients worldwide. He’s co-authored two books on user research and spoken at numerous industry events. Bill is definitely a busy guy.

Recently, I had the chance to catch up with Bill and ask him a few questions of my own. In the following interview, Bill fills us in on the subject of his latest book—Beyond the Usability Lab: Conducting Large-scale Online User Experience Studies—and what’s changed in our industry over the past couple of years. And make sure to check out below for details on how to win a copy of his new book; we’re giving away two copies!

Hey Bill, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Recently, UX Booth contributor Jacob Creech posited that the Internet alleviates the common obstacles found in the lab. Does this match your experience? If so, what does a modern usability lab have going for it?
I don’t think the Internet is replacing the lab, only enhancing it. For example, at our labs here at the Bentley Design and Usability Center, we are able to stream live sessions to any place in the world. We are able to test with anyone in the world, without having them come in. We can even test on site, and broadcast that session back to the lab in real time. The Internet gives us tremendous flexibility.

One of the most significant advancements in the last five years has been the explosion of online usability testing tools. Thanks to the Internet, designers and researchers can elicit feedback from users in just a few hours, or run larger, quantitative studies in just a few days.

I don’t think there is ever going to be a replacement for usability testing in a lab setting; it’s just not the only method in our toolkit anymore.

How do you differentiate large-scale and small-scale user research initiatives? I’ve always seen this as divide between Web Analytics and Design Research, respectively. Must we necessarily lose the qualitative aspect of our data?
I don’t differentiate large-scale and small scale user research. I do, however, make a distinction between qualitative and quantitative research. Qualitative-based research usually means a smaller sample size (less than 30), and quantitative-based research is anywhere from 30 up to several thousand. Qualitative is about the “why” and quantitative is about the “what.” There will always be a need to see both sides of the coin. For this reason, I strongly encourage complimentary methods to understand the big picture.

I am a big fan of online user experience studies, and co-authored the book Beyond the Usability Lab: Conducting Large-scale Online User Experience Studies. These tools allow researchers to collect both qualitative and quantitative data. No longer are we forced to choose. It is sort of a “one-stop shop” for UX research.

The subject of your recent book—a kind of how-to with regards to large-scale studies—is closely related to that your last book, defining metrics by which user data can be interpreted. What, if anything, has changed for you (or the industry, for that matter) over the past two years with regards to measuring the user experience?
My first book, was written in the spirit of highlighting how metrics can be used as part of testing and research. We wanted any designer, researcher, even product manager to have the basic skills necessary to take advantage of user data. What’s particularly exciting is that the sales of our first book continue to grow, even though it has been out for more than two years.

By comparison, my recent book targets a subsection of UX metrics. It is essentially a how-to guide to collect user data from a large group very quickly.

The Internet now allows us to capture a lot of data very quickly. It is very exciting, and we have been doing it for some time. Over the last ten years, however, we have run into a lot of pitfalls. We wrote this book to let UX people know that there is a lot more to these studies than you think, and we try to share some tips and tricks for how to handle large scale UX studies. This truly is a growth area. There are more and more tools everyday to handle unmoderated usability testing (both small and large-scale).

More recently, there’s been a huge shift towards “just diving in” to user experience. What, though, does experience add or takeaway from to the informal usability study? What common mistakes have you learned to avoid?
I think this trend is in response to the increased awareness and importance that user experience plays in product design. Also, it is pretty easy to just sit in a room with a participant, or set up an online study, and ask some questions and give some tasks. This may be valuable in the short-term, in a very tactical way; however, there is a bigger picture that is often missed.

UX professionals are trained to dig deeper, to understand the “why.” We bring together research from many perspectives, and provide strategic thinking around product design and development.

UX professionals take organizations to the next level. User experience is, ultimately, a way to achieve business goals. Being housed at a business university, I frequently see the critical role that user experience research plays in a helping a company reach its bottom line. Here at the Design and Usability Center we are focused on catching the “big fish.” In other words, perspective separates the novice from the professional.

Many of our readers are either new to the community or independent contractors, working without the benefit of a big name behind them. The small companies that they likely interact with are notoriously reluctant to spend money on UX testing. What advice do you offer to those who meet with opposition?
Everyday user expectations have shifted considerably in the last few years. It is no longer enough to have a digital presence (as it was 10 years ago), and it is no longer enough to be usable (as it was 5 years ago). Users now expect all of our designs to be smart and aesthetic. In a hyper-competitive marketplace, organizations that don’t design an exceptional experience will eventually die.

I hate to be so cold about it, but I really feel that is the truth.

If user experience matters to a client, they must devote resources towards to it. Not only that, but user experience must be a mantra coming from the top on down. For contractors who are facing resistance, I suggest collecting data about the experience of the product in question, as well as its competitors, and leaving it up to senior management to make the smart (right) decision. If that doesn’t make an impact, I would go out, have a drink, and start looking for my next client.

Closing thoughts

Major thanks to Bill for taking the time to answer some questions for our readers. If you have questions for Bill—or someone you’d like to see us interview—let us know in the comments!

Additional resources

About our Guest

William (Bill) Albert

Bill Albert is Director of the Design and Usability Center at Bentley University, a user experience design and research consultancy supporting clients worldwide. He is co-author of the books Measuring the User Experience: Collecting, Analyzing, and Presenting Usability Metrics (2008) and Beyond the Usability Lab: Conducting Large-scale Online User Experience Studies (2010). He tweets under @uxmetrics.