At #mtpcon San Francisco, Elizabeth Churchill, Director of UX at Google tells us how research can work in product development to help us make useful and usable interactive experiences. Using a case study from Google Material Design, she shares how research was initially used in development, where the research practice is today, and where it’s going.
Research in the Beginning
Design Systems, including Material Design, have been popular in the tech industry since around 2011, and provide designers and developers with a set of guidelines and components that govern how a product should feel. Design systems provide benefits to teams as they make scaling easier, provide consistency across a product, create efficiency in building products, and foster teamwork as designers and engineers work together to build and maintain the system.
When Material Design started, it was viewed primarily as a design effort. The research mostly focused on prototyping and exploring visual concepts, but little was done in the realm of talking to end users and customers. The team built physical prototypes of the icons and elements of material design that would serve to inspire the digital designs that comprise the design system. While these efforts brought some beautiful, iconic visuals to life, they didn’t provide insight into how their users really interacted with the design system.
The Growth of the Research Practice
By 2015, Material Design had attracted many thousands of users. The team realized this lack of insight into their users should be corrected, and started building research into their process. A team began using both qualitative and quantitative practices to help answer questions such as, “What should our text field look like?” Rather than focusing narrowly on the question at hand, they talked to designers and developers about how they did their jobs. This helped them understand the day-to-day activities of their users in their original context: how their users solved problems, how their design gets done, and how tools such as Material Design fit into the process today.
As they began to truly understand their customers’ journey, they uncovered a number of touchpoints that were still unknown to the team and could use additional research. This brought about the need for better discipline in program management and product management to ensure the team was prioritizing research in the right areas.
Research in Material Design Today
Today, research in Material Design is a deeply collaborative effort between researchers, designers, developers, product managers, and program managers. Elizabeth highlighted key elements that have made research successful in her team:
- Planning: Research is connected with the OKRs of the team and is planned to support the disciplines at all phases of product development, including foundational research, iterative research, and evaluative research.
- Communication: No research effort is considered “done” until the results have been shared out. All research reports are published and easily accessible internally, allowing insights to be reused by others, and even reinvestigated as needed.
- Collaboration: The Material Design team has built a process where everyone can participate in research. It is not just done by researchers and designers – everyone is welcome and is working together to achieve the end goal, which is gaining insights that will help us build great products.
- Data Foundations: As the team has continued to evolve, data and analytics have become more important. So the Material Design team put effort into data mapping exercises, understanding where they might need to invest in tooling or what methodologies they might use to get answers to questions across the entire customer journey.
Building a Culture of Research
As she closes her talk, Elizabeth reiterates that research is most successful when it’s built into the team. It takes a village to bring good products to land. Bringing together all of the different disciplines and infusing a culture of research has been key to Material Design’s success, and sets the stage for the next phase of the design system’s growth.