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  • Atomic UX Research - band aid for poor documentation strategies | jimiwikman.se

    Atomic UX Research - band aid for poor documentation strategies

    Posted , 534 views, 4 comments ,

    Photo by Roussety Gregory from Pexels

    Atomic UX Research. Sounds like something amazing, doesn't it? Something that will fit right into the modular design and development processes in Atomic Design. Unfortunately it is just a fancy name for having a proper documentation strategy for UX Research made up by UX Designers who work in poorly structured workplaces.

    When I first read the article "Foundations of atomic research", I had no idea what the person was talking about. Was it a process, a content strategy or maybe even how to present the findings. I looked up the Atomic UX Research further and found the article "What is Atomic UX Research?" and it seemed like it was all about how to organize the documentation of the findings.

    I watched the video (added blow) where Daniel Pidcock try to explain this new, revolutionary way to organize data, and I was both amazed and a bit disturbed over the fact that the audience actually seemed to agree with this nonsense. The reason I felt that way is that there is nothing in this new made up word that have anything to do with UX. It's just common sense on how to manage documentation. Any documentation.

    Anyone working with research should know that you always connect current research with relevant research that it is related to. It is also standard practice for anyone working with research to add metadata to make the research findable in different situations. Anyone working in UX research, especially towards the web, should know that data get old very fast and loose relevance very fast.


    As it stood, the UX team, BAs and PMs would run experiments, write up what they learned and how they used that knowledge. These were normally produced as PDFs, Google Docs or Slide-decks and then were filed away in Google Drive.

    That is not how you work with any form of documentation that is supposed to be alive. If you make UX research then that data is ever-changing as you continue to learn and experiment. This does not warrant a new way of working, you just need to start working the right way. Proper documentation is always a part of research, as is traceability so you can understand where the conclusions come from and how you used it to formulate new theories to be tested.

    Research Cycle.jpg

    The Atomic UX Research suggests that you should divide the research into smaller bits and then tag each type with metadata. The idea is that by doing that you can discover other data that is related to your research. If you have hundreds of theories going at once in multiple teams, or you want to bring in similar research on other systems or services then maybe that would be useful.

    Then again, if you have that many experiments going, then the volume of data would be immense and you would have no way of knowing what data would be relevant. You would spend a ton of time on matching old experiments that probably will be obsolete as the design have already been updated since it was conducted.

    Atomic UX Research.jpg

    This is the image used to illustrate the four main parts of the Atomic UX Research. Note that the structure start with the Experiment. Now it may be implied, but an experiment should be tied to a theory. What are we trying to prove and why do we think this is worth exploring should be the starting point for all research. While I think this may be implied, for me this is where this theory fails.

    By having the theory as the highest level, all experiments fall under that theory. All theories are built on previous learnings so while there is no problem having the information structure dividing the content beyond experiments I think that if you ensure you have your theories in order you would not see many insights related to multiple theories at the same time.

    Even if you have an additional level of information for insights you would not have multiple conclusions. The conclusion would be tied to the theory we are working with based on the result of the experiments we run to test that theory. In the event that we make findings not related to the theory we are testing, this would be marked in the conclusions as separate theories to explore at a later date.

    My take on the Atomic UX Research approach is that instead of inventing new names, you should start working with research properly. UX Research follow the same basic structure as every other research field. In order for any research to have the desired effect you need to formulate theories, conduct experiments to test that theory, analyze the result and finally take what you have learned and form new theories and of course activities to improve the service or product you are doing UX on.

    The result is documented in a searchable tool with metadata and connection to previous theories that support the decision to make further testing of the current theory. You do not need a new methodology for it, just follow the standard research praxis that has worked for many, many years. Doing random exploratory testing is not research. It is exploratory testing/discovery.

    Atomic UX Research = UX Research.



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    Hi Jim

    Of course you are right: Organisations should manage research knowledge properly... but they don't. 

    I also think you have underestimated the challenge of managing data at enterprise scale. You say "This does not warrant a new way of working, you just need to start working the right way." That's fine for a small team or a single researcher but quickly breaks down for multiple teams let alone teams working across varying countries/products/brands.

    The basic atomic concept isn't new - I don't claim it to be, in fact I specifically call this out - but it is a new way of thinking for most orgs. It also sets out an easy to follow synthesis process that most find useful.

    Particularly it makes it possible to build a research system that scales even across organisations with many brands. Something that can't be done effectively with just basic meta-data.

    Would be very happy to explain in more detail why and how we achieved this. A 20 min talk from 2 years ago definitely only scratches the surface. 


    Dan @ Glean.ly 

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    Welcome, Daniel and thank you for your comment 🙂

    I understand the complexity and while I do not see the challenges you do, I am always open to learn new things 🙂

    As you say things are rarely as they first seem and discussing allow details to surface that might not have been clear in the video or in the articles.

    Happy to sit down and expand my understanding anytime you have a moment to spare.

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    This is an unsatisfactory article on two levels. There's a lot of criticism lobbed at the talk with vague solutioning. For someone genuinely looking for a UX repository, the article doesn't really provide concrete solutions but bashes the Atomic research talk. At least the Atomic research talk does provide concrete solutions

    The other level is the abrasive tone it takes on, even though the word "respect" keeps popping up all over the place, including the personal tagline of the author. "There are no stupid questions here and you will always be treated with respect." is on the front page.  Actions speak louder than words. There are no stupid questions here and you will always be treated with respect."

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    5 hours ago, Lucy L said:

    This is an unsatisfactory article on two levels. There's a lot of criticism lobbed at the talk with vague solutioning. For someone genuinely looking for a UX repository, the article doesn't really provide concrete solutions but bashes the Atomic research talk. At least the Atomic research talk does provide concrete solutions

    The other level is the abrasive tone it takes on, even though the word "respect" keeps popping up all over the place, including the personal tagline of the author. "There are no stupid questions here and you will always be treated with respect." is on the front page.  Actions speak louder than words. There are no stupid questions here and you will always be treated with respect."

    Two fair opinions 🙂

    On the first point that Atomic Research provide concrete solutions to a research approach, then I'll give you that. That was not the point of my objection though, which takes us to the second point.

    The Atomic Research, as far as I understand it, is just another name for research in general. It does not add anything new, it just adds a new name in order to sell it to companies that don't have the structure and understanding of what research is.

    So while I applaud the initiative I have strong objections to make up words to sell what already exist. Especially when that is something as basic as academic research. Making up words that already have strong association with both design and development is another things I consider bad as it will cause confusion in the workplace and further separate UX from UI and development.

    If you are looking for tools to manage your UX workspace and you are unfamiliar with standard research practices, then by all means: use whatever works for you. I have nothing against the activities used, just the packaging.

    And just to be clear: Critique is not disrespectful and it is a very important tool in research and the world of academia. You can see that I have responded to Daniel and is open to change my mind if there are aspects of his solution I might have mistaken or misunderstood.

    I also take your opinions as valid critique and I will keep it in mind for future articles. Maybe I'll write a few articles on standard practices for research and how you can use that for area such as UX and CRO?


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