Matthias
UX researcher

UX and sociology

How to combine sociology with user research into a happy marriage.

Nowadays it is quite common to have anthropologists and in general anthropology as a cornerstone of UX design and UX research methods. In fact, many of the used methods are derived out of this branch of social science. In this article, I want to explore some of these approaches and how they can benefit UX design and research.

As Paul Boag said:

“To be a great designer you need to look a little deeper into how people think and act.”

Psychology can help us to understand the thinking part better and sociology gives us an understanding of human behaviour to design accordingly.

photo by Pexels

photo by Pexels

What is sociology and why does it matter?

Sociology is part of social science that analyzes the social interaction of people. A lot of the times sociology or its methods are used to collect and maybe interpret quantitative data, which I would argue makes no service to the plenitude of theoretical and practical approaches sociology has to offer.

According to The University of North Carolina, sociology is "the study of human social relationships and institutions." So on the one hand side, we have social relationships and on the other the institution we as humans constructed to make our society work. It discovers patterns within society and relationships in order to quantify and qualify them and understand how these are happening to many. Throughout the 150 years of its existence, many sociologists and philosophers developed different approaches.

UX design

To create a design that is appealing, useful, even joyful as some would argue, it needs to be integrated into the right context. Generally, user experience (UX) is defined as any interaction a user would have with a product or service. UX design consequently is about creating this experience, taking the side of the user, understand how they feel but also how easy they can proceed with the tasks they want or need to do.

User research, in this case, refers to the research companies and agencies are doing to achieve an improved user experience and to understand and serve better their users and customers. This field was nurtured by Social Anthropology, Psychology, and Neuroscience and uses qualitative and quantitative research methods which are actually also broadly used in sociology.

That being said, the final goal of UX design and research within departments of tech companies is, of course, to create higher customer loyalty, more revenue, and subsequently more profit. It is important to not lose the general business goals out of sight here, which happens sometimes when we talk about design.

Sociology and User Experience

Let's first see how sociology can support UX design/ research in a practical way. After that, I will go thinking theoretically and explain a few sociological theories. If this doesn't interest you just read this part and leave the rest out.

User personas

The creation of user personas is one of the most obvious examples of how sociology can feed into great UX design. In order to create a user persona, it is important to understand social aspects that are important for a person to use a certain product or service.

Sociology enables to feed the creation of a persona through tools and methodology. Besides the incorporation of demographics, sociology has theories such as the role model that refers to the idea that we, as individuals, are stepping into different roles depending on the social situation we are in. What does that mean? Easy: you are a different person when interacting with your best friend, with the cashier of a 7Eleven, or your parents. Knowing that can help us create better and more complex personas and the situations we want our personas to be in or certain behavior we want them to accomplish.

User journeys

A user journey is a great tool to keep yourself and your team informed on what you are doing, which part of the product you are working on, and so on. But did you know that we act differently depending on the situation we are in (look at the former paragraph)?

Take the example I came across when I started studying. The first thing I read in sociology was the Sociology of the elevators (just check this video about social pressure done through elevator experiments), a meticulous study of how people interact with each other when using an elevator, a transportation unit where we don't want to have any interaction with others but are the closest as we could. It turns out people in elevators try to avoid eye contact, conversations, or any social interaction. Observe it next time you ride one. This example is to show that there exists a methodology you can use to observe people and/ or to describe a social situation better which will be fruitful for any journey mapping. Add a good user persona to it and your results will be more accurate.

Collecting quantitative data

This one is close to my heart because I remember having statistics and struggling with it. Most sociologists are trained in how to collect quantitative data and how to interpret it. In my time, it was mostly through SPSS a program I created a hate-love relationship during my Ph.D. What I still cherish is the rigorous application of quantitative data used to confirm or dismiss theoretical problems.

Sociologist design

Besides the artefacts there are more benefits sociology can give us when doing UX design and research. The folks at wondershare.mockitt came up with an interesting list of components such as Critical Thinking, Policy Development, Problem-solving, and identify sociologist designs as important for the relationship between sociology and UX that are longitudinal, cross-sectional, and cross-sequential.

photo by Pexels

photo by Pexels

Is there more?

What a question. Of course, there is more. Mainly, sociology and the different approaches might be able to infuse new ways of thinking in the design process. For example, Niklas Luhmann created a thought and archive method called Zettelkasten (loosely you could translate it to box of notes) where he organized things he came over when researching or thoughts he had.

"A zettelkasten consists of many individual notes with ideas and other short pieces of information that are taken down as they occur or are acquired. The notes are numbered hierarchically, so that new notes may be inserted at the appropriate place, and contain metadata to allow the note-taker to associate notes with each other. For example, notes may contain tags that describe key aspects of the note, and they may reference other notes. The numbering, metadata, format, and structure of the notes is subject to variation depending on the specific method employed." (according to Wikipedia)

Let's go further and see how Luhmann's system theory can help to make UX research more meaningful. According to Luhmann society is built upon systems such as Politics, Economy, Science, and so on. These systems create meaning within themselves and to the outside of their systems. Based on that Luhmann proposes that only communication communicates, he doesn't take the individual out of the equation but rather defines them as a proper own system that interferes with the other systems. Another important part is that each system has what is called autopoiesis and e referees to the characteristic that each system is operationally closed. His argument is that communication, made possible by human bodies and their consciousness, reacts in a circular way to each other. The famous saying goes that only communication communicates. Imagine someone starts talking to you at a party, you will automatically answering and so on. Now having this in a social space, we have the political, the economic, the academic systems (there are more) that are all functioning through a binary code. The economic system is based on profit and no profit, there is no other thing if you strip it all down. The political system is created around power and no power and besides all the other complexities this is what is left when you strip its actors' behaviours to the bare minimum. Luhmann calls this complexity reduction. Academia is producing knowledge and no knowledge at the same time. This complexity reduction helps us to understand the behaviour of individuals when they enter these systems. A manager, even for a sustainable energy company, needs to make a profit at the end of the day. A politician within the political system tries to get into power. This doesn't make her or him less or more progressive but it helps us understand why an individual makes certain decisions. The concept of complexity reduction can help us understand individual behaviour more clearly and make better design decisions.

Understanding a social theory can help us to understand better how a service or a product might impact our users, our community, or society as a whole.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Final thoughts

As Don Normann explains it lately through his idea of UX design in the 21st century, we need to rethink design in order to have a planet left where we can design and sociology can be one path for that. Exclamation on one, because there are more ways. It also helps to inform our problem space better so we don't recreate the tenth app with the same function as other designers or companies already have. Innovation, the introduction of something new, can happen through the application of old approaches into new contexts and that is what sociology can bring to the table within the UX realm. That way, we can create and design more meaningful and solve real-life problems, not just some that were artificially created.