How User Experience Researchers Think
Lina Breslav
Lina Breslav

How User Experience Researchers Think

Lina Breslav, UX Researcher

Abductive reasoning… provide(s) us with permission to think beyond what’s already there” – Iffat Jokhio &  Ian Chalmers

Even though we don’t have our own television drama (yet), user experience researchers share an important characteristic with doctors, lawyers, and detectives: we often rely on abductive reasoning. There are three major types of reasoning: inductive, deductive, and abductive. Inductive reasoning suggests that something general might be true based on an individual experience (e.g.: Every penguin I’ve ever seen is in a zoo, therefore, all penguins are in a zoo). It can’t guarantee the truth of its conclusion, but it can lead to an educated guess. Deductive reasoning is a method of applying a pattern based on an existing, known truth (e.g.: All penguins are birds, thus this penguin is a bird). It logically guarantees the truth of its conclusion if the premise is true.

Abductive reasoning is the process of coming to the likeliest possible conclusion from all possible known information, and it lies at the heart of creative problem-solving.

While all three methods are valuable and not mutually exclusive, abductive reasoning is a favorite in user experience research because it does the best it can with the information at hand.

In an everyday scenario, you may encounter a half-eaten bagel on the kitchen counter. Having observed that your roommate is late for work every day, you may reason that she started to eat breakfast but rushed out of the house to catch the bus. Of course, you cannot guarantee that your roommate left for work. Maybe she was late for a dentist appointment.

You do not assume that a penguin has broken into your home to make itself breakfast. Using abductive reasoning, you come to the most logical conclusion.

Why does abductive reasoning matter?

Abductive reasoning is important to user experience research, especially in an agency setting, because it is both efficient and creative. As user experience researchers, we thrive on both uncovering and assessing novel problems and solutions. We often work with people in the context of their daily lives, at the forefront of technology, with incomplete data sets, and within time constraints. While abductive reasoning leaves room for continued testing and validation, it allows us to move forward while doing what we do best: embracing our constraints.

In a recent project, an interdisciplinary team at Prolific worked on an opportunity assessment for a partner in the financial sector. We had a big challenge: re-imagine a client-centric digital experience that would leapfrog over the competition. This was exciting work, and our partner was deeply invested– they really care about their clients, and our project generated buzz at every level of the company.

To understand where potential opportunities existed, our joint team spent eight weeks conducting stakeholder interviews, subject matter expert interviews, ethnographic research, in-depth user interviews across the country, a large survey, and checkpoints along the way with major stakeholders. We honed in on problems and moved forward through the process, adjusting our research plan to ensure we were using methodologies that aligned with the type of data we needed.

The power of abductive reasoning came into focus when the team, with a foundation of all the research findings until that point, aligned on jobs-to-be-done  statements that became the guiding light of our subsequent work. Grounding ourselves in the research but working together to think beyond what was there correlationally, we devoted time and resources to identify the critical “jobs” that were poorly performed for the target users of our product. Using this content, the partner team fielded a large quantitative survey to triangulate on our findings and empower us to prioritize most effectively.

We could have spent years analyzing the client experience. The more interesting the project, the more tempting it is to conduct research forever (after all, we’re in this field because we’re deeply curious!). Even with an aggressive timeline, we had to strategically uncover, understand, and communicate what we needed for the project to progress with the best available information. With a deep and strategic user research process, we embraced all constraints and brought forward three distinct opportunities that, together, will deliver on our partner’s goals. We are now designing, testing, and iterating on this work, ensuring that user experience research remains part of our process in the most impactful way possible. Next time you are faced with constraints, embrace them wholeheartedly, brush off your abductive reasoning skills, and enjoy the challenge.