Overcoming egocentrism – where to next for the UX research industry?

Note: This post is over 4 years old. It was first published in April 2010

Egocentrism is something that we largely grow out of in childhood. There’s a famous test in developmental psychology called Piaget’s 3 mountains task (shown below). When you give it to 2-6 year old children, most of them fail. As soon as kids reach 6 years old, they start passing the test in much greater numbers.

Anyone who works in User Experience knows the importance of overcoming egocentrism and seeing things from other points of view. This is, of course, a different kind of egocentrism we’re talking about here – not so much “What does the person sitting opposite you see right now? “ but “What needs, goals and expectations do your users have when they interact with your service? What do they find confusing? What do they find undesirable?”

Let’s think about the UX consultancy industry for a minute. For many research consultancies, their bread-and-butter work involves selling small usability testing projects. For about $10-$15,000 USD the client gets an 8 user study, a few video clips, and a presentation that explains where the pitfalls are in their current site design.

These kinds of projects are mainly just an exercise helping clients overcome their egocentrism. Clients are so wrapped up in their own world view that it’s a huge eye opener to suddenly see things from the user’s point of view. What’s more, the first few times you do user research on a particular site, you’re very likely to uncover a good number of low hanging fruit for your client. The consultant’s work is easy, the client is happy, and the high price is entirely justifiable.

This puts consultancy firms in a comfortable position – it’s easy to keep rolling out small usability testing projects. As long as the clients are queuing up, what’s the problem?

Well, the big question to ask is whether this is a sustainable situation. Should we even want it to be? I’d argue that you’re a poor consultant if your clients keep bringing their designs back to you for exactly the same kind of project, and you keep giving them exactly the same kind of findings. It’s a fundamentally boring rut to get stuck in (your life starts to feel like groundhog day), and it indicates you’re treating the symptoms rather than the cause. Good consultancy involves educating your clients and equipping them with ability to change their organisation for the better.

Does this mean the UX consultancy is going to change, and that small usability testing projects will stop being bread and butter work? Personally, I hope so. It’ll be a good sign that we’re doing our jobs right.

Image credit: McGraw Hill

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